Common Core: A Report Card

Since its inception in 2009, Common Core has taken on an unexpected significance, becoming a political battleground, a comedic catchphrase and a scapegoat for those who take issue with either the government or the education system. While parents on social media flock to anti-Common Core tweets, and presidential candidates use frustration with the standards to fuel angry oratory, Common Core proponents maintain that their standards will push students to emphasize critical thinking over mere memorization, thus promoting career and college preparation.

The Common Core is a set of standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics that dictate the requirements to which every student should be held. Science and history standards are still being developed. While standardized tests such as the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exist to test Common Core skills, no particular test is required. The tests are part of a new ecosystem of curricula and evaluation that will work with states, districts and individual schools to educate and test students according to the demands of Common Core.

California Implementation
California began adopting Common Core standards in 2010. As districts were notified of the change, public schools were given one mandate: prepare students for the SBAC test in May 2015. Otherwise, administrators had complete control. What curricula they adopted or changed and when was up to them.

In Silicon Valley, the standards were met with more enthusiasm than skepticism. While some teachers were reluctant to put the time to create a new curriculum in the face of media backlash, many adapted to the standards quickly.

“There were two mindsets when Common Core came out,” Bullis Charter School first grade teacher Dana Kincaid said. “There were people who embraced it, and there were people who were like, ‘No way, I can’t change these things.’ I think teachers [here] are very willing to change… It was more like, ‘Okay, here’s what we got. What are we going to do?’”

Local Impacts
In schools around Santa Clara County, implementation has run smoothly. District administrators enacted the transition gradually, putting less stress on teachers for immediate change.

“Our district has been very reasonable and they’ve… given us time and money to learn and get familiar with the core standards,” English teacher Margaret Bennett said. “My impression is that it’s really not like, ‘Here are the standards, now you need to know how to do them immediately.’”

The primary change for many LAHS students was the first round of SBAC testing in May 2015, which was taken by this year’s seniors, and by sophomores and juniors as practice. The SBAC reflected the standards’ emphasis on written explanations over multiple choice answers.

“[Common Core] forces us to… make more inferences and use our critical thinking skills more rather than just memorizing answers and spitting those back up in the test,” sophomore Alec Lefteroff said.

In mathematics, Common Core mainly creates curriculum shifts for K-5 students. Changes are not as significant in middle and high school, where many students sidestep basic standards with accelerated tracks.

“[Students] have to be explaining their thinking more and creating ways to show how they have solved these problems,” Kincaid said. “[Common Core teaches] through math talks and discussions, and there are so many different strategies that come up. It’s cool to see [students] make those connections and see them explain it to each other.”

Common Core’s early focus on problem solving represents a larger shift toward real world thinking, where the struggle is not as much in knowing a formula, but knowing how to use it and apply its concepts.

“Common Core has brought home the fact that we need to do more problem solving,” Blach Intermediate School mathematics teacher Marcia Chron said. “The emphasis has been not so much on memorization of things but knowing how to use them [because] in the real world, if you’ve forgotten a formula, you can just look it up. The greater skill to develop… is ‘Here’s my toolkit of formulas, now which one should I use for which problem?’”

For many ELA teachers at LAHS, the new standards have initiated a formalization of teaching methods that were already being used rather than changes in the curriculum.

“Most of what we were doing was already in line with Common Core,” Bennett said. “It made us look at our existing assignments and tweak them to make sure they were aligned with Common Core standards. If someone asked why we’re doing this [assignment], I could easily explain. It’s not just on a whim.”
The standards refocus teachers’ mindsets on life skills of argument and analysis that extend beyond high school.

“How many times do we have to be able to read something, like a manual, a tax form, or a letter in the mail from the IRS, [and] you have to be able to read and figure out what argument this person is making?” Bennett said. “Do you agree or disagree, and how are you going to persuade them? I think it’s all real life.”

Legitimate Concerns
The successful narrative of Common Core implementation in Santa Clara County is not surprising. Schools in Silicon Valley have two advantages over other districts: teachers already accustomed to Common Core-style teaching, and district budgets that are the largest in the state.

For schools that lack funding, teachers face many problems throughout the implementation of the standards. When Kincaid taught at a public elementary school in Arizona where 90 percent of kids were eligible for reduced-price lunches, creating new curricula was difficult.

“In Arizona it was much harder,” Kincaid said. “My friend teaches in Arizona, and she doesn’t have a writing curriculum at all, so she comes up with everything on her own.”

Furthermore, SBAC testing becomes problematic for poorer schools that lack technological infrastructure to support students.

“With the SBAC being online, it’s really challenging for schools who don’t have access to working technology all the time,” Kincaid said. “If your school doesn’t have the bandwidth to hold a class on the internet at one time, how are you going to take the test?”

Common Core’s emphasis on writing and explanation also represents a steep challenge for students who are still learning English.
“Not only are you explaining [your thinking] in English, but you have to be able to write it and articulate it in a clear way,” Bishop Kindergarten teacher Nicole Fiala said. “[An English Language Learner] could understand much more in their mind than they’re able to actually write out and explain… It could frustrate and deter [ELL students] from wanting to continue education or trying their best and not just giving up.”

The Common Core is not perfect. While its goals college and life preparedness are unassailable, significant obstacles remain in its way before underprivileged schools will be able to harness its less straightforward and more rigorous standards.

Yet in cases of success like Silicon Valley, where teachers and administrators put in the necessary effort and have sufficient resources for implementation, the standards can cultivate an open mindset among teachers and students and provide essential skills not prioritized by previous standards.

“Common Core encourages [teachers to say], ‘There’s no right answer, [but] how did you think of this, how did you get to this place?’” Egan English teacher Cari Bruzelius said. “It’s that movement from feeling like there’s only one right answer to, ‘What do you mean there’s more than one answer?’… That’s hard, especially when ‘C’ was the right answer.”

That is the reality of Common Core; it is an imperfect set of standards intended to promote applied and critical thinking across the nation. Silicon Valley is a success story for this model, where wealth and ideals have intersected to foster a microcosm of educational success. However, in districts without sufficient resources, Common Core implementation will continue to be a challenge for years to come. ◊