Common Core State Standards and private schools: A relationship of flexibility

By Karen Billing

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are coming in the fall and while public schools in California will be mandated to implement them, private schools are in a unique position to use them in whatever way that makes sense for their curriculum and institutions as a whole.

Leaders of local private schools said they like having the opportunity to be flexible regarding Common Core — they can opt out of what they don’t like and embrace ideas they feel would be best for their students.

“Many things that the Common Core is trying to achieve are really good,” said Dr. Tom Bennett, the head of schools at Santa Fe Christian and a former professor of education at Cal State San Marcos. He said there’s a real value in the standards’ goal for kids to apply math skills and solve unique and novel problems, and to develop critical thinking that will help them succeed in college and beyond.

“We’ve been doing many of those things at Santa Fe Christian for a long time,” Bennett said.

“We use (the state standards) as a springboard and then we go beyond it,” added Hannah Park, lower school principal at Santa Fe Christian.

Heather Dalton, director of curriculum and instruction at Rancho Santa Fe’s Horizon Prep, said Common Cure is often misunderstood as a curriculum when in actuality it is another set of standards.

“The benefit of being at a private school is that we can raise our standards to a higher level and we are not legally required to limit ourselves to one set of standards,” Dalton said. “At Horizon, we consider the state standards and national standards to be our minimum bar, we then go a step beyond by providing a biblical worldview education and incorporating other higher standards as comparisons, and often extend our expectations by as much as a grade level based on the ability of our student base.”

The new standards were initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and aim to create a foundation to work collaboratively across states and districts, instead of each state having its own set of standards.

So far, Common Core has been adopted by 45 states, plus the District of Columbia. Alaska, Texas, Virginia and Nebraska have not adopted the Common Core and Minnesota only adopted the standards for English language arts. Some states have considered “pausing” Common Core, such as Indiana, which wants to give the state board of education an extra year to review the standards and select a statewide test to match.

Any big change like this requires teacher training and infrastructure, Bennett said. It doesn’t matter how great an idea it is, everything has to come together in the implementation and it’s not always easy or quick.

Santa Fe Christian went through a similar change six years ago when the school changed its math curriculum, choosing a program that was rooted more in problem solving than in computation.

In advance of the mathematics shift, the school put teachers through three years of intensive teacher training in Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI). The research-based professional development helps teachers take a student-centered approach so they can understand and assess what students need.

The same trainer who helped Santa Fe Christian with CGI seven years ago is the one who is training Del Mar Union School District teachers now as they prepare to shift to the new standards.

“A lot of schools come to our school to observe how we implement the CGI approach,” Park said.

A big focus of Common Core is the development of a richer understanding of concepts so kids can apply that information for solutions to problems. Bennett said Santa Fe Christian students are prepared to think, reason and creatively apply their knowledge.

“We want our kids to think and to think hard,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the small class sizes allow them the opportunity to push for depth of knowledge, which can be harder in a larger classroom.

Teachers there take an integrated approach to instruction, allowing students to learn in a way that is natural. They look at different ways to engage students, understanding that different student learning outcomes require a different type of instructional approach.

Marci McCord, director at Del Mar Pines School, a non-denominational private school in Carmel Valley, said their school is in a similar position — they find some of the Common Core standards useful, others they may opt not to adopt.

“Our program is fulfilling a lot of it already,” McCord said. “We’ve always focused on critical thinking skills, especially in language arts — it’s something we’ve done for 35 years.”

McCord said they already approach curriculum with a lot of the depth of knowledge aspects promoted by Common Core and have 1:1 technology integration.

At Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, educators trigger the standards’ goals regarding depth of learning and collaboration by doing seminar learning, according to Pacific Ridge’s website. An average class of 15 students “sits around the table with the teacher in the ‘Harkness’ method, tasking students to share opinions and ideas and forming well-supported arguments on the subjects they are discussing.”

At Horizon Prep, educators employ a Classical model based on the trivium (a grammar stage, a logic stage and a rhetoric stage) that already places an emphasis on critical thinking, higher order reasoning and problem solving, according to Brent Hodges, Horizon Prep elementary vice principal.

“In essence, the students need to learn how to learn. The content of the curriculum is what schools use as the clay to form knowledge, but the emphasis is on the learning and equipping students to understand their thinking process and learning how to learn so that in any aspect of school or life they have the ability to think critically and take it to the next level,” said Hodges. “In this sense, Classical schools are years beyond what Common Core is currently attempting to just begin.”

In addition to new standards, Common Core also brings a new assessment test for students. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is writing the new test, which will no longer include multiple choice or true and false questions. Sixty percent of the test will be performance-based tasks and the majority will be performed on computers.

The consortium will do field tests in California between March and June for students in third through eighth grade.

McCord said as CCSS assessment tests are still developing, they are taking a “wait and see” approach.

“We want to see what it looks like and whether it makes sense and gives us information that can help improve our program or not,” McCord said.

Students at Del Mar Pines currently take the Stanford Achievement Tests and Otis-Lennon School Ability Tests.

Private high schools have to keep watch on the assessment tests as well, as SATs and ACTs will also be rewritten to align with the new standards.

The architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, is the current president of the College Board and is redesigning the SAT, targeting the introduction of the new test in 2015.

“Our kids need to do well on those exams so when the College Board made that announcement two years ago that they were aligning with the Common Core, it gave the Common Core more teeth...” said Matt Hannan, Santa Fe Christian upper school principal.

As the main goal of Santa Fe Christian and Carmel Valley’s Cathedral Catholic High School as college preparatory institutions is getting students into college, the schools are keeping an eye on the tests to make sure their students are fully prepared.

“At this point we are not rushing to change our whole curriculum to reflect Common Core Standards,” said Sharon Rublacava, assistant principal of academics at Cathedral Catholic High School. “The college entrance tests and the approval process of curriculum through the UCs are going to reflect certain aspects of the Common Core. So we are offering professional development opportunities to faculty to learn more about how we can meet the needs of the students yet stay in control of our curriculum.”

Bennett said the crux of Common Core’s success will be how well prepared the schools are to implement the changes. McCord agreed that much will depend on preparation as so much is being asked of the teachers.

Bennett said his greatest fear is that some of Common Core’s great ideas will not have a chance to be successful because they aren’t given enough time. A change this big, he said, is going to require a lot of time.

“We’re going to need some grace as we’re going through this because it’s going to be a learning curve for everybody,” Bennett said, noting the curve will apply to teachers, students and parents alike. “I think it’s where we need to go philosophically, there’s no question, but it’s going to take some time collectively to get there. We’re asking teachers to teach in a way they’ve never taught before.”