What are the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and how will they change the instruction our students receive? A number of questions swirl around the changes our students will experience in Sonoma classrooms. We spoke with Louann Carlomagno (Sonoma School superintendent) and Robert Curtis (director of Curriculum and Instruction) to get some of your questions answered.
What exactly are the Common Core State Standards?
Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade. They are not a curriculum, they are an end result. In California, the state Board of Education decides on the standards (or end result goal) for all students, from kindergarten through high school. The California Department of Education helps schools make sure that all students are meeting the standards.
In 2010, education leaders in 48 states got together to write a new set of standards for students across the U.S. – the Common Core State Standards. Until that time, each state had its own separate set of education standards, or list of skills that students were expected to be able to do by the time they graduate each grade.
The Common Core State Standards represent perhaps the most significant, widespread education reform that has ever occurred in American public schools. Currently, the vast majority of states have adopted the standards and most plan to assess students’ progress on them during the 2014-15 school year.
How will they change the instruction my child receives in the classroom?
In a nutshell, the Common Core Standards encourage schools to teach fewer concepts, but in more depth. Existing standards are thought to currently focus too much on Level One in the chart below, while the CCSS will focus on knowledge Levels Three and Four.
While fewer concepts might sound like classwork will get easier, one complaint of the Common Core State Standards is that they are expected to be more rigorous than most states’ existing standards. The good news, according to Carlomagno, is that California is already widely perceived to have rigorous standards.
The Common Core State Standards center around identifying big ideas and then helping students to gain a greater depth of knowledge of those concepts. The standards are not a curriculum, they are supposed to, instead, provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to know and be able to do.
In Common Core math, fewer concepts are presented each year, and more time is provided for students to explore multiple ways to solve a problem, explain how they arrived at an answer, and apply new math concepts to real life situations. According to the district, students may have fewer, more complex homework problems each night.
In Common Core language arts, students read from a wide variety of genres, including fiction and non-fiction texts. There is a focus on making connections between different types of reading: for example reading a poem, a short story, and a magazine article about the same topic; or comparing a poem and a story that share a common theme.
Students also discuss what they are reading with the class, and learn to back up their ideas with evidence from the text. The biggest change that families might notice is an increased emphasis on non-fiction … or the kind of writing children will need to be comfortable with later in college or their career. Most districts are aiming for a balance of 50-50 fiction to non-fiction in K-8, shifting to 20-80 in high school.
In terms of increased rigor, Curtis explained that the standards may require students to read somewhat more difficult texts sooner, and engage in discourse at a more complex level.
Are Sonoma teachers prepared for the change?
According to Carlomagno, teachers are busy working collaboratively across the district to develop curriculum plans of the content and skills that students will learn in class. Technology plays an important role in the implementation as many teachers are using current free web-based means to share lessons plans and videos in a way that can enable the sharing of best practices.
According to Curtis, teachers have been provided with professional development opportunities for the past several years and this year, new hire Nancy Case-Rico was brought in solely to support teachers during the transition process. According to Carlomagno, more than 40 educators are currently serving on literacy and math teams to support district-wide implementation of CCSS. Lead teachers across the district are serving as mentors to all teachers in the district. The district is also working closely with Sonoma State University to build instructional leadership capacity.
Will our students still take the STAR tests every year?
Two new computer-based assessments have been developed and California has chosen to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessments. Those tests will formally replace STAR testing in the 2014-15 school year. Gov. Brown last week signed a bill into law that will result in all school districts in California piloting Smarter Balanced Assessments this current school year.
Why has California decided to make this change?
The hope is that implementation of the Common Core State Standards will ensure that students in different states are held to the same standards (right now there is justifiable concern that some state standards may be much more rigorous than others) and that K-12 instruction builds upon itself. In the past, some teachers have been concerned that students were learning too many topics in a year to fully understand them. The new standards focus on the most important knowledge and skills that students need. Most importantly, said Carlomagno, “The standards are designed to be relevant to the real world, reflecting the 21st century knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”
This is a big change; was our district in favor of the change or resistant?
According to Curtis, Sonoma took an early interest and has been implementing the Common Core in some classrooms since 2010. Some Sonoma teachers are even now training other teachers countywide. The district supported the state’s decision to adopt the standards and has been planning and providing professional development to prepare for the transition for several years now. According to Curtis, the required changes in instruction, curriculum and assessments has resulted in effective collaboration between superintendents, teachers and administrators as well over the past two years, as they share resources and ideas.
What is the timing of the new standards?
The standards were finalized in 2010. The transition in Sonoma began in the 2010-11 school year, but the district really focused its efforts during the 2012-13 school year.
Are all states nationwide on board with the Common Core?
No. As of right now, 45 states are on board but there is a lot of debate about cost and concern over a lessening in state rights. A few states, having adopted the standards, are now wavering in their decision to adopt and/or their participation in the new assessments.
How can parents learn more?
Parents are urged to get a feel for what their children will be learning as they move through school. There are great resources for parents who are interested in learning more about the Common Core and resources to support student schoolwork.
• The complete CCSS: corestandards.org/the-standards.
• Source chart on levels of understanding: dese.mo.gov/divimprove/sia/msip/DOK_Chart.pdf
• California’s CCSS website: cde.ca.gov/re/cc/
• Helpful grade-by-grade information: cgcs.org/Page/328
• Flowery Elementary School’s website offers one of the best CCSS resource pages: floweryschool.org/page144.html
• Sample assessment questions here: sampleitems.smarterbalanced.org/
• CCSS smart phone app: The Mastery Connect app outlines exactly what students should be able to do each year in school.
• CCSS Information Sessions in Sonoma: Parent nights will be held Thursday, Oct. 24 at Altimira Middle School from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. in the multi-purpose room and Thursday, Nov. 21, at Sonoma Valley High School from 6 to 7:15 p.m. in the gym.