Ready or not, here come the Common Core standards. In many schools, they’re already here.

Thanks to parent advocacy groups and news outlets like KPBS, which have covered the roll-out extensively, you might already have the gist: After governors and education leaders initiated the Common Core movement, teachers and content experts helped write new standards in math and English that weigh critical thinking skills above rote memorization.

California is one of 45 states that have voluntarily adopted the new standards. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown earmarked $1.25 billion to help California school districts make the transition. And in classrooms across San Diego County, the shift is under way.

But if you’re like most people, you probably still have some questions: If you’re a teacher, what will this do to your lesson plans? If you’re a parent, how will this affect your kid? And if you’re a student: Like, what tests are you going to have to take?

First, to the students: The old fill-in-the-bubble tests, the kind you used for the California Standards Tests, are gone for the time being. (A few grades will still be taking portions of the CST, as well as those who need the tests for college admissions purposes.)

Otherwise, 11th graders and students in grades 3-8 will be trying out the new Smarter Balanced Test this spring. Don’t sweat too hard; this year will be a pilot. (You might want to practice, though. It looks kind of tough). Next spring, the district plans to be at full speed.

And parents who try to help their kids with homework might find that they’re the ones who are stuck. Rachel Laing, whose daughter is a third grader at Loma Portal Elementary, said, “Common Core sounds like a good idea, and I want to embrace it. But sometimes I’m looking at her homework and I have no idea what I’m seeing.”


— Rachel Laing (@RachelLaing) January 22, 2014

As for teachers, you’ve got your work cut out for you, too. But you probably already know that. Because there’s so much to unpack, I enlisted Paula Cordeiro, professor and dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego, to help me sort it out.

Cordeiro and her department staff help train future teachers, and work with students who come back to school for graduate degrees. Here’s a portion of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

There are some big changes coming down the pike. Lots of parents are concerned about Common Core and worry the new Smarter Balanced tests …  

They are and they should. These are big changes. The teachers are concerned, too. Teachers haven’t been prepared for the Common Core. But you’ve got to invest in them.

I had 19 San Diego Unified teachers in my class this fall. All 19 of them, when I said, “Tell me about the Common Core, how are you feeling about it?” All of them felt (Common Core) had potential. There was a continuum, but nobody said, “Throw it out.” So they all know that it’s good stuff. It’s just that they all don’t know how to implement it. They need help.

What are we talking about when we talk about Common Core? I think a lot of people are struggling with that.

The new standards that are built into that curriculum are getting into critical thinking far more deeply — problem-solving. That also means the pedagogy of the teachers has to change. In high school, a lecture is not going to get you to the critical thinking.

So the way that I teach has to change if I’m going to deliver that curriculum. And I have to use technology to do it, too.

We gave every student in our program an iPad. So that for the two years they’re in the program they can start using technology. For everything we do in the program, we don’t want them to use paper. And we did that because we expect them, as school principals, as classroom teachers, to be using technology to do their work.

Some of the other districts are better than San Diego Unified. More knowledgeable. Some are farther behind. Certain schools in San Diego Unified are really good and already using technology to teach the Common Core well. Others aren’t. There’s a great disparity from school to school.

Is Common Core changing the way that you’re preparing future teachers?

You bet. Oh, yeah. Our teacher education program, our Learning and Teaching department faculty had to get trained in Common Core. It’s a trickle-down. So now our faculty — I hope —are all comfortable. And now they’re writing textbooks and building the standards into the books that they’re writing.

There’s a lot that has to change in a short amount of time.

Very short. And that’s the other thing. There’s a lot of change taking place.

Managing all this change (for San Diego Unified) will be Cindy Marten’s job. Cindy’s having a panel, which we’re invited to, because she’s concerned about the teacher pipeline and what universities are doing to prepare teachers. We’re all different at universities; some of us do a better job than others. And it’s up to the school districts to say, “You gotta do this and you gotta do that because your students aren’t prepared.” So I love it that she’s calling a meeting.

Is it a situation where Common Core’s coming and you say to teachers, “OK, forget everything you know. This is how you should be teaching?”

To a certain degree. I mean, if I’m a high school science teacher, I still have the content knowledge. But, before I was working with standards that weren’t requiring me to ask my students to demonstrate it in this way. So now they’re being asked to think really critically. To compare this, and to compare that. Whereas before, I could have used a multiple-choice test. Now, the kinds of experiments that they’re doing, or the projects that I have them do, are going to have to be much, much deeper. So my pedagogy has to be different.

What are some of the problems that might come up in the rollout?

Well, we’re all insecure when we have to change things. So, if I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I’ve been doing science in this way and now I have these standards, first I have to know what the standards are, so I have to learn them. Then, all those lessons that I’ve developed over the years — I’ve got to teach them differently because the objectives have to be done differently. That’s a lot of work.

Are you going to give me time? Are you going to give me training? And, I’ve never done it that way before. I’m going to be nervous. Because you’re my principal, I’m not going to tell you I’m nervous. Or you might be my colleague in the next room and I’m not going to tell you, either. So it’s scary. You’re insecure.

My students were insecure. They told me, and they’re doing it, but it’s all different. I had them doing a project in class and the project required them to use a lot of technology, and they said, “Thank you so much because we had to learn how to use these different presentation formats for our students and we didn’t know how to do it.” The district isn’t teaching them how to do it.

Some people have predicted a coming disaster. Do you think that’s accurate?

Nah … No, no, no. But there’s a sea change taking place in education right now. You see, everything’s on a continuum. Every school in this county is on a continuum. There are traditional schools like the one I went to — where everyone’s in a row and teacher knows everything and pours the information in your head, and you shut up and listen and only talk when you’re spoken to.

And then there are some schools that are embracing innovation. Some examples where you see this already taking place are at schools like Millennium Tech or E3 Civic High. Or High Tech High. And some of them are charters.

But I also see regular public schools that are becoming more entrepreneurial. But you know, No Child Left Behind was a horrible thing. It put people in a box. It made people afraid. It made them teach to the tests. It took all the creativity away from the teacher. And people think that the Common Core is doing the same thing, but it’s not.

All the Common Core is saying is: Here, these are standards, teach them any way you want. But you gotta teach them. And that’s what I have always wanted, was standards, because you can’t let teachers just teach anything they want. So to me, it’s day and night. Common Core is nothing like No Child Left Behind.

Didn’t No Child Left Behind focus on standards as well?

There were standards, yes. Different standards. The Common Core standards are far more exciting, far more interesting. Developed by — a lot of people don’t know this — developed by educators. So they reflect the beliefs of outstanding teachers. The standards that we used before were not common from state to state. But the testing was. The requirements were. So everybody was teaching to a test, and test scores were put in the newspapers, and I didn’t want my school at the bottom. How demoralizing is it when you’re school’s here?

Do you think that although our philosophies have shifted since the peak of No Child Left Behind? In reality the way we’re thinking about a successful school is the same as it used to be.

That’s correct. You’ve got it. It’s lagging. It’s hard to get away from the mentality of No Child Left Behind because it put people in boxes. A lot of teachers and principals think they’re still in those boxes. And unless the central office folks give them permission to innovate, then some of them are going to stay in their box.

So teachers need to be empowered, and principals have to say, “This is what you have to teach, here are the standards, go off and find out the best way to teach them” – whether it be in school or at the Balboa Park museum. But just teach the standards and make sure they know them.

All schools are on the continuum now, and it’s up to the superintendent to move them along the continuum so you’re focusing on what is important. And that’s learning. Not structuring kids around ringing bells. I hate bells. Why do we need bells in school?

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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