The shift to Common Core and what’s troubling about it

By Marsha Sutton

New awareness that students are graduating high school without the skills and knowledge they need for success in college and career has prompted the creation of a national undertaking called Common Core State Standards.

California is one of 45 states to date to adopt these new common academic standards for curriculum and instruction, and school districts at the elementary and secondary levels throughout the state are busy preparing for the implementation of Common Core in 2014.

What’s interesting about Common Core is its transition, to varying degrees, away from previous instructional methods, curriculum content and assessment techniques.

The San Dieguito Union High School District’s shift to Common Core State Standards for mathematics and the humanities was the focus of a recent meeting with Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services.

The new standards, said Grove, are narrower and have greater depth than existing standards which cover more ground but less thoroughly.

College faculty and employers have observed that even high school graduates with high test scores and excellent grades often struggle when faced with real-life kinds of problems. They can successfully solve problems with clear definition and boundaries, but can lack the ability to generalize or apply knowledge in ways not specifically taught in the classroom.

“We are hearing this from the military, employers and professors,” Grove said.

For example, the way math is taught now, students can solve equations but often can’t apply the concepts, Grove said, so critical thinking and experience with collaboration are weak.

In preparing to implement Common Core, the district is focusing first on mathematics, which presents greater challenges than humanities, he said, because course work is currently sequential while under Common Core all math disciplines overlap and are interconnected.

Common Core for math allows districts to choose a traditional or integrated approach to instruction, but even the traditional path is quite different than what’s been taught for years under California’s state standards.

Most countries use an interconnected approach to math education, with instruction that integrates pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, algebra II and trigonometry. The United States is one of the few countries using the traditional sequence.

San Dieguito, Grove said, decided to adopt the integrated approach after a rigorous review by SDUHSD math teachers who made the decision unanimously.

As a result, all middle schools will teach integrated math next year, in what will be called Math 7 in seventh grade and Math 8 in eighth grade. Ninth, 10th and 11th grades will adopt Integrated 1, Integrated 2 and Integrated 3, respectively.

In a report issued in October, SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt wrote, “Proponents of an integrated approach argue that it helps students see the natural inter-connections between different areas of mathematics and that the approach better reflects how mathematics is applied outside of the school setting.”

Real-world problems – in engineering, personal finance or even building a backyard shed – “almost always require us to appropriately apply different types of math simultaneously, rather than requiring only algebra or geometry in isolation from each other,” Schmitt wrote.

He said getting students to see the practical application of mathematics is the goal.

Daunting project

The district is considering its options next year for students already in the middle of their math sequence.

Most students take pre-algebra in seventh grade, algebra in eighth, geometry in ninth, and algebra II/trigonometry in 10th. (Pre-calculus, calculus, and statistics are not part of the Common Core math program and will remain electives.)

Sixth-graders from the feeder elementary districts will take a placement exam just as they do now and be recommended for placement next year in seventh grade in either Math 7 or Math 8.

Current pre-algebra students (typically seventh-graders) will begin the new Common Core curriculum next fall and take Math 8 when they enter eighth grade.

Students currently taking geometry, no matter their present grade level, are “grandfathered” in and will continue in the traditional sequence, Grove said.

The open question, he said, is what to do with eighth-graders now taking algebra.

Another issue is how to do acceleration. “We have to provide that for those kids,” Grove said. Two pathways – compaction and course skipping – are being considered, and there could be multiple points when students can accelerate.

Next fall, SDUHSD schools will offer Math 7, Math 8 and Integrated 1 (for ninth-graders), Grove said. The implementation to full Common Core for math will be complete with the addition of Integrated 2 and Integrated 3 in subsequent years.

Grove called this a daunting project but said the adoption of Common Core math standards has been generally well-received by teachers who are excited conceptually.

“Teachers are on board by and large with the shift,” he said.

The district is focusing now on professional development and instructional strategies, and every math teacher in the district is getting six full days of staff development.

Canyon Crest Academy math teacher Brian Shay, who is leading the transition, is working with his team to evaluate new math textbooks, which need to be ordered this coming spring, at considerable expense.

Common Core for humanities is not as big a shift, Grove said, although “there will be more focus on non-fiction in Common Core because most reading is analytical and persuasive,” he said.

Students need to read textbooks and evaluate and process the information effectively, so all disciplines will be incorporating similar literacy standards, he said. For example, history teachers will continue to teach history but will also be given professional development to teach how to read and write.

Assessments aligned with Common Core standards will be very different. “Many [questions] will ask for the best answer available and why,” Grove said, rather than the traditional multiple-choice test.

No Common Core standards exist yet for science and social studies, he said.

Feeder districts

All five of San Dieguito’s feeder elementary districts – Cardiff, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Del Mar – are also engaged in the transition to Common Core and are collaborating to provide a seamless transition to middle and high school in math, which “is the area where the most work is needed,” Grove said.

The state has budgeted about $1.25 billion –or about $200 per pupil – to districts to implement Common Core in three areas: professional development, instructional materials and technology. The money must be used between now and July 2015.

The Del Mar Union School District is receiving $876,800 from the state in Common Core State Standards Implementation funding, and is allocating the money, according to the Nov. 20 board report, in the following way: $662,000 (75.5 percent) for staff development, $130,800 (15 percent) for instructional materials, and $84,000 (9.5 percent) for technology.

The Solana Beach School District is receiving $597,800 from the state and, according to its Dec. 12 board report, will be allocating $269,000 (45 percent) for staff development, $298,900 (50 percent) for instructional materials, and $29,900 (5 percent) for technology.

The Rancho Santa Fe School District received $134,645 and plans to allocate the money in unspecified amounts for staff development and instructional materials.

The amount San Dieguito received comes to $2,484,800 based upon an enrollment number of 12,424 students, Grove said.

The good and the bad

Common Core has been widely applauded as an important step in improving the quality of American education, with its dramatic shift away from rote memorization and multiple choice assessments that reveal little of a student’s academic potential except their ability to memorize and regurgitate answers soon forgotten.

For years, we’ve heard colleges and employers bemoan students’ lack of preparation for real-world problem-solving. Many parents too realized that the system as it’s presently set up ill-serves many kids who shine in ways current assessments don’t reveal.

It’s generally accepted that Common Core is a system long overdue and will better prepare students for life after high school.

What’s bewildering is that education leaders are suddenly saying that the old system doesn’t work and we need to embrace this radically new way of teaching and learning.

If educators readily acknowledge that it was so bad before, why has it gone on so long?

The fault for this big “oops” lies with no one in particular. It’s not a decision each district is free to make, because education funding from the state comes with strings attached. And the primary string is to follow established instructional and curricular protocol and test students using pre-selected standardized assessments to gauge their performance.

However, for the kids who were taught using former strategies, what are we to think? Were those students poorly educated? Do they lack essential skills compared to the education kids today will receive?

The implication is that they have been short-changed, and maybe even betrayed, by an educational system deemed “correct” by far-removed authority figures in Sacramento and Washington who have limited understanding of the impact their policies have on individual students in the classroom.

Fads come and go in education – like the ever-popular “new math” that always seems to loom on the horizon – but let’s hope Common Core is more than a trend or an educational flavor of the year.

This is a fundamental change in the delivery of education, with emphasis on areas that have been missing for decades – methods that teach children to think about math, history, science and literature in ways that will foster creativity, collaboration, innovation and independence.

What a concept. And what a shame for all those lost years.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at