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The New Face of Education

news2New standards favor teacher freedom in the classroom, focus on global standards

After 18 years as a teacher, Karen Richmond says she finally feels that educators are being treated as professionals.

“We have a lot of training and a lot of us have a lot of experience,” says Richmond, a kindergarten teacher at Valencia Elementary in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD). “I really feel like, for the first time in my teaching career, that's being validated.”

This new appreciation she feels stems from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were adopted by California in 2010 and are regarded as a hallmark for the future of K-12 education in California and the nation.

CCSS are in the process of implementation within the 45 states, four territories and Department of Defense Education Activity that have adopted them. The standards—which will replace states’ individual standards—are being released one by one over a four-year period, beginning in 2010 and ending in 2014. They will be required within all California public schools for the 2014–15 school year. Some private schools have also adopted part or all of CCSS.

New mathematics and English language arts standards will be introduced under CCSS, along with parallel Next Generation Science Standards and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects that will be released over the next year and a half.

The new standards will draw on other countries’ education models—including those of Finland, the United Kingdom and Singapore—with the aim of ensuring that what American students learn is internationally benchmarked.

“The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world,” according to the Core Standards website. “With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Kindergarten teachers in PVUSD will put CCSS in place a year early, in the 2013–14 school year, based on a unanimous vote made Jan. 10 by teachers in the district. Richmond has already begun the process of incorporating certain portions of CCSS, specifically some language arts instruction techniques, in her classroom this year, and says she can see student improvement already.

“The one-size-fits-all [approach] has never worked as long as I've been teaching,” she says. “We all have a different group of kids we're working with. Even from year to year … I have a different group of kids … with different needs and different skills that they need to learn, different levels of abilities.”

Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction in Santa Cruz County Diane Elia has been involved in education for 30 years, and says Santa Cruz County districts are already ahead of the curve. Because California’s current standards are “pretty rigorous compared to other states,” she says it will not be too harsh of an adjustment to CCSS.

Nonetheless, Elia sees benefits in the new standards’ adoption, especially in getting students ready for college and the workplace. Under the new guidelines, teachers will be encouraged to utilize tools like inquiry-based seminars, multimedia and images, and partner collaboration in their classrooms. Teachers will also be urged to focus heavily on text complexity and below-the-surface understanding with a strong emphasis on use of evidence.

“There was just too much teaching to the test and teaching kids to memorize facts,” says Elia. “These standards will lead to a much deeper level of learning and higher level of thinking in our students.”

PVUSD is the largest district in the county, and serves the largest number of English Language Learners (ELL), another demographic heavily affected by the move to CCSS.

Susan Perez, PVUSD’s director of Categorical Programs and English Language Learners, says, “our current system has been failing [ELL students],” and that she is “hopeful” CCSS will bring a change.

It is up to Perez, along with a team of several coordinators, Teachers On Special Assignment (TOSAs), and two math coaches to help train PVUSD teachers to be ready for Common Core’s full implementation in a little over a year. It is almost left entirely up to districts in the county to come up with training plans for teachers.

Some trainings are available at the county office—the county helps with partial funding for substitute teachers—and others are available on-site, led either by representatives from the county or by district administration. The most recent training occurred at the county office on March 7, and another is scheduled for March 28.

While Perez says the criticism she hears from teachers about CCSS is limited, it does exist. Some teachers worry about distracting from current standards by testing some CCSS portions early.

“There are some teachers who are in the mindset that this isn't going to last, that ‘I'm just going to wait and this will go away,’ and I think that's probably not a wise stance to take because these standards are all about 21st century learning,” Perez says. “With the global economy, the tech-driven workplace, we can't be doing what we've been doing and expect our students to be ready.”

Some educators also worry about the expenses of the venture—which districts will bear, and the possible funding sources are still being hashed out—including access to computers in every district for assessments, training-day expenses (including paying for substitute teachers) and a new set of textbooks. States must also hire a team of workers to review the hand-written portions of new CCSS assessments.

“A lot of our districts don't think this is a realistic goal, but I've been in a district where we administered adaptive assessments on a computer, and it wasn't a high-wealth district and we were able to get our kids [through the computer lab],” Elia says. “I think it's realistic."

Despite Perez’ hesitation about whether or not all teachers will be ready to adapt, she is optimistic.

"We always do the impossible with very little,” Perez says. “That's the nature of education."

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