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Common Core

By Donna Bryson

Posters in Spanish and English decorate a second-grade classroom at Melrose Leadership Academy, an Oakland dual-language immersion school. Chattering children sprawl on a bright rug. A new immigrant from Yemen recently added Arabic to the mix.

It’s a typically American symphony of language and color in a school that reflects the state’s and the country’s growing diversity and complexity. But look closely, and you’ll see an unusual detail. Teacher Nessa Mahmoudi ’10 has propped her smart phone on a table and set it to record as students discuss a picture book. Later, Mahmoudi will review the recording to help assess whether her students are fulfilling their assignment: to discuss how a book character is learning about family ties, and to support their conclusions with evidence gleaned from the text.

For Mahmoudi, who started at Melrose after graduating from the GSE’s Developmental Teacher Education (DTE) program, making the recording is taking a step toward the rigorous and focused goals set out in the Common Core State Standards. Mahmoudi has a mindful optimism shared by fellow teachers, by school administrators and by university researchers about the education standards adopted in recent years by California, 44 other states and the District of Columbia. After all, they say, much of the thinking about education found in the standards is embedded in decades of teacher practice and researcher study.

From the classroom to the lecture hall, Common Core is being embraced as a step in the right direction. Common Core proponents acknowledge they face questions about scope and direction from dissenters, and caution the promise of the goals will not be realized without hard work and attention to detail.

“It seems like an opportunity,” Mahmoudi says. “Common Core has definitely given me language in which to talk to other teachers.”

GSE Professor P. David Pearson is encouraged that the standards have been described as a living document that will evolve and improve with experience and be based on research. Pearson, who was on the validation committee that signed off on the standards, is even more encouraged that the Common Core allows for teachers to put their own imprint on curricula.

“I thought that was really amazing that the Common Core authors put that in a standards document,” he says of language he reads as recognizing the importance of teachers and what they know. “That’s just right.”

Pearson is concerned, though, that as implementation guidelines are devised and textbooks written, the high expectations laid out in Common Core will be watered down, and teachers will lose flexibility.

“I think there are real possibilities here,” Pearson said. “Even though I’m critical, I’m still a believer in the standards.”

Pearson, who once taught fifth grade, has encountered teachers who see Common Core as a blueprint for building the curricula and engaging with students in activities they believe young people need to be ready for college and careers. While teachers commit themselves to making the goals a reality in their classrooms, Pearson says he will speak out when he sees textbook publishers, policymakers or others misinterpreting or diluting what Common Core has set out to do.

As an example, Pearson cites a debate over the meaning of “close reading.” While some might say that calls for students to focus on literal understanding of their texts, he argues that’s not enough when the goal is to develop students into critical thinkers.

“We have to know not only what the text says, but what it means and what its underlying intention is,” he said.

Teaching and assessing critical thinking, whether in reading or mathematics, won’t be easy. Professor Alan Schoenfeld, who holds the GSE’s Elizabeth and Edward Conner Chair, worries that teacher preparation programs have lacked time and resources when it comes to Common Core, and that textbooks won’t provide adequate support.

“If you ask people to do something new and hard, you need to support them,” Schoenfeld said. “Research indicates that developing expertise in any area – medicine, electronic troubleshooting, or teaching – takes between 5,000 and 10,000 hours of reflective practice.”

Berkeley is working in collaboration with the Oakland Unified School District to implement a professional development program that supports teachers in using “formative assessment lessons” developed by the Mathematics Assessment Project, of which Schoenfeld is principal investigator.

The goal of the GSE-OUSD collaboration is to provide meaningful opportunities for all students to grapple with mathematical problems and participate in discussions as “doers of math” as opposed to many classrooms where mathematics is learned by rote.

It could take several years for some teachers to foster mathematical conversations in their classrooms that create “productive struggle,” a process that allows equitable opportunities for students to engage in mathematics and build mathematical habits of mind.

“If you’ve been trained in the ‘show students how to do the math and then have them practice’ form of instruction, it’s really hard to step back and open things up in the classroom in ways that allow students to build their own understandings, and provide assistance as they do,” Schoenfeld said.

It is worth the investment of time and resources because learning through memorization without understanding the lesson’s content generally results in little to no retention of information. If students can build and use their understandings in meaningful ways, they can draw on that knowledge to solve other problems —which is what Common Core aims to accomplish.

Schoenfeld also hopes patience will be shown when California students take the first tests linked to Common Core. In New York, results from the first such assessment, in 2013, showed a much lower percentage of students were deemed proficient than the previous year. That is to be expected when students move from being tested on their basic content knowledge with multiple choice tests to richer tests that seek to assess whether deeper learning has taken place, Schoenfeld said. When students fail, as they are likely to, he hopes parents and politicians will take it as a call to give teachers and schools more support, not to blame the system or Common Core.

“People need to understand what the big goals are, how they are important, and what we need to do to support teachers so they are not hung out to dry,” Schoenfeld said.

In addition to signing on to Common Core goals, states are working together to design tests that measure progress toward those goals. Two national consortia have been formed: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College Careers. Pearson has helped develop criteria for the SBAC, whose test will be used in California. Schoenfeld is the lead author for the SBAC’s mathematics specifications.

Schoenfeld and Pearson say teachers will inevitably teach to the tests. So, they see part of their role as ensuring that the tests truly reflect Common Core values.

Allison Krasnow ’99 has had a chance to see what the new tests will be like, as part of preparing for Common Core.

“They’re not the straightforward, multiple choice tests,’’ said Krasnow, who, with 14 years in the classroom behind her might be expected to be wary of promises of reform. But she is enthusiastic about Common Core.

The new tests, she believes, will require deep thinking, and that “will mean that we will get the opportunity to teach in far deeper ways,’’ she said.

Teachers have been teaching the critical thinking and problem-solving that the Common Core goals address but not with the focus Common Core promotes, and not with standardized testing designed to reinforce the emphasis, Krasnow said.

The Common Core demands can seem overwhelming, said Krasnow, a DTE graduate and technology coach in the Berkeley Unified School District. But, she said, Common Core is “what kids need and deserve, and will make it more exciting to be a teacher.”

Mahmoudi shares Krasnow’s sense of excitement. Mahmoudi, who speaks English, Spanish and Farsi, said to create a dual language immersion program, teachers at Melrose Leadership Academy developed their own curricula and branched out from textbooks, giving them experience that schools will need as they embrace Common Core. She sees parallels in her school’s own philosophy embedded in Common Core.

Setting high goals can lead to high achievement, as any teacher knows. Mahmoudi has students in mind when summing up an ideal she sees as central to Common Core. But she could just as well be talking about the impact the initiative might have on teachers and society.

“If it’s not difficult,” she said, “they’re not learning.”