We all know that change is the only constant in life, but nevertheless, people seem find fault with anything new in an effort to stave off the inevitable.
Educators are no different. Perhaps it is because the education world has been through so many changes - phonics, whole language, “New” Math, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, to name just a few - that teachers and school administrators have become defensive, reacting from gut-level fear and fatigue when a new initiative threatens to shake up the world they’ve finally gotten used to since the last reform mandate was handed down.
Unfortunately, this instinctive negativity can blind people - smart, educated, caring people - to the benefits of a fresh approach.
This time, the sea-change causing an uproar of negative reaction is the launch of National Common Core Standards for K-12 public education.
The National Common Core Standards (NCCS) were developed by a consortium of experts from around the country, including teachers, administrators, and representatives from educational research and advocacy organizations - a veritable think tank of stakeholders. Curriculum frameworks from many states were cherry-picked for their best parts; assessment results were analyzed to determine best practices that should be included; college and university as well as corporate feedback was sought to determine the culminating skills and knowledge that students would need to be successful post-graduation.
After years of development, the standards were released in 2010. All but five states have adopted the standards, targeting implementation in the next two years. This means that states and school districts must work quickly to familiarize teachers with the new guidelines. So far, only math and Language Arts standards have been written; social studies and science are in development. Nevertheless, history, science, elective, and even P.E. teachers are being asked to get on board with the new expectations as well, especially with regards to contributing to students’ non-fiction reading skills and analytical writing. This is causing a bit of panic among teachers who believe that they are suddenly being asked to teach skills outside of their subject area with little training and no materials or support. Elementary teachers have the greatest burden because of the nature of teaching all subjects and having to align their plans to two new sets of standards at once.
It’s no surprise that faculty lounge chatter reflects concerns, complaints, and even hints of defiance. Online conversations on education blogs are full of mixed emotions. Diane Ravitch, renowned education researcher and policy analyst, hosts a blog on which she invites participants to air their views on the NCCS. “I am weary of all that is happening with the CCS,” writes Lynda Costagliola. “Once I feel ‘I’ve got this’ a whole new approach is thrown at me. It’s too, too much.”
On the other side are those who see the benefits of standards that give teachers guidance towards a big picture outcome for their students. In response to an article by Jon Wray, a math program facilitator in Maryland, publicharterteacher wrote about a personal experience with the new standards: “My school unrolled common core at the end of last year and found that the students' knowledge of numbers and computations deepened. Also of note was that even my own knowledge of math increased through my instruction! While the work is challenging, the students should benefit greatly in the long run.”
Judy Cummings, a high school Social Studies teacher in Wisconsin, is already using the new Language Arts standards for literacy in history, but says that they do not cover enough of the history content area. “Seems like social studies is always put on the back burner,” she laments.
In San Diego County, teachers and administrators have been able to learn about the new standards in a series of trainings offered by the San Diego County Office of Education. However, not all teachers are being sent to these trainings; math and English teachers are getting the first spots, while science teachers, like Lori Moreno of Carlsbad, are left wondering, “Will the district be offering any kind of in-service?” to the rest.
By school year 2014-2015, all public schools in California will be assessing their students in grades three through eight and eleventh on the new standards. Pilot testing is beginning this spring across the state in selected schools. Carlsbad Unified is among the districts with schools participating in pilot testing in the next few months. One of the biggest questions yet to be answered is how the logistics of the testing will be handled. Because the NCCS emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, and analysis, the new tests are largely devoid of multiple choice, bubble-in answer choices. Students will be asked to write short constructed responses explaining their reasoning as well as complete performance tasks. All of this will require the use of computers for administering the tests, a requirement that puts cashed-strapped schools using limited numbers of outdated computers in a challenging position.
One thing that is certain is that these changes will be stressful for everyone, not just the teachers. Administrators and support staff are going to have to figure out how to get hundreds of students rotated through one computer lab of 36 computers within a timely window. Students will be challenged by the novel format of the new assessments, and parents will likely be surprised at their children's scores in the first few years. There will be a learning curve for everyone involved, and no one likes to feel like a novice, especially when the stakes are high and the nation is watching anxiously.