Q&A: What You Need to Know to Prepare for the Common Core

Q&A: What You Need to Know to Prepare for the Common Core

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Ed. Note: In 2010, California became one of 45 states to adopt a new set of national education standards in English and math for all students. Full implementation across the state is scheduled for 2014. Described as “the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history,” the Common Core promises to revamp the way in which schools both instruct and assess their students, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and analysis and moving away from the test-based instructional models currently in place. EdTrust West Executive Director Arun Ramanathan says the Common Core is a welcome change, particularly for special needs students across California. Though he notes the new curriculum’s success will depend largely on how well districts, and the public, prepare for the changes ahead. He spoke with New America Media Editor Peter Schurmann.

New America Media: Critics of the new Common Core standards warn that it could widen the achievement gap between low and high performing students. What are your thoughts on that?

Arun Ramanathan: It’s such an old argument, and to some degree it’s a racist argument. The notion that if you heighten standards for poor kids and kids of color, and then you also improve and enhance the teaching that they receive is somehow a negative … I actually think it’s the low expectations that hamper students and that are far worse than saying, “We’re going to have high expectations and then we’re going to teach to those high expectations.”

When people put their preconceptions about poor kids and kids of color aside and do that kind of teaching, you see kids as young as kindergarteners and first graders engaging in a whole different way, learning in a whole different way. I think that’s what the Common Core is about. When you change your expectations, you have a huge chance to transform the lives of children, particularly their educational lives.

NAM: How do you respond to those who say the Common Core is an example of government overreach in standardizing education?

Ramanathan: The Common Core is not about standardization … it is about simplification and depth. The essence of the standards is that they allow teachers to take a smaller but more in-depth set of standards and teach them in much less of a rote way, and in much more of an experiential and project-based way. That’s the essence.

Yes, you may have standards that are consistent across states, but the way those standards are taught will vary from classroom to classroom and from school to school. What will be interesting, though, is to see how students are doing in one state as compared to another under a common set of standards. Finally, you can create true cross-comparisons … and be able to highlight what is successful.

NAM: What will some of the indicators be going ahead to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Common Core?

Ramanathan: The success of Common Core is going to hinge on us rethinking the way that we instruct and construct curriculum. If we take Common Core and just run it through the same standard curriculum that we’ve used … if we give teachers three or four professional development sessions and then say, “Hey, this is the Core. Go at it!” … if we just use iPads as glorified test booklets, nothing will happen.

But if we use these new standards in the right way, if teachers are able to utilize the standards in a way that allows them to differentiate instruction in the classroom to the real diversity of learners; if teachers are able to use technology to accelerate and support that; and if they’re able to cross-collaborate and take things off the net; if we see that occurring, and if we see students more engaged in their learning; if we see better outcomes in English Language Arts and Math … that’s what you should look for.

What you’ll need to do is take a look at what’s happening in the elementary and middle school levels, because that’s where you’ll see some great benefit. For our high school students, who will already have been exposed to the previous system, the transition may not have as great an impact. But what does Common Core mean for early learning, in particular? That is going to be fascinating to watch.

NAM: Gov. Brown has set aside $1.25 billion for implementation of the Common Core. What are you seeing in terms of how districts will use that money?

Ramanathan: It’s been highly variable. Some districts have sort of ducked their heads and said, “This too shall pass.” Then there are districts that have churned ahead. The interesting thing about that $1.25 billion is that it’s going to both kinds of districts. So the districts that have surged ahead will know what to do with the money. What we hope to see happen is that these districts are raised up as examples and that people don’t just recreate the wheel across California.

NAM: What are some of your concerns regarding implementation of the Common Core?

Ramanathan: The [Common Core] discussion has been an insider education conversation, and so the public isn’t fully engaged. We see with New York that when standards are upped and instruction changes, there is significant pushback. And so the public has to be prepared. If we’re going to change our testing systems, if we’re going to change our API (Academic Performance Index) measures, we have to keep in mind people’s connection to their schools … people have to be prepared. The change is going to be jarring, and people will push back if they think it’s not in their benefit or in the benefit of kids.

[As far as assessments], we’re talking about the expansion of computer adapted testing for all students in California. That’s six million kids! It is clear at this point that districts are at very different places in their ability to deliver computer-adapted assessments. Even something as simple as bandwidth … with that influx of money, districts may buy a bunch of tablets. But what we don’t want to see happen is that those tablets don’t run because schools don’t have the bandwidth and connectivity. And even if they do have the connectivity, if you’re going to buy 500 tablets, don’t turn them into glorified test booklets. Use them as powerful tools for instruction.

NAM: Will the Common Core put English Language Learners and their families at a disadvantage?

Ramanathan: At this point I think the Common Core has some work to do in terms of thinking about how best to allow all students to access the standards. But by being more streamlined than [the current] California Standards, and by being less rigid, the Common Core allows for teachers to differentiate instruction based on the needs of their students.

For non-English speaking parents, the entry point will be the math. But we still need to think about how best to bring parents in on the language arts. Simultaneously, we need to think about the primary language materials that are available for parents. Language should not be a barrier to accessing good content, and I think that’s a challenge that the Common Core folks have to take on as a top priority, especially in California.

NAM: What are three things parents need to be aware of around Common Core?

Ramanathan: The first is that it’s here. If we do it right, it will accelerate student achievement; it will better prepare kids for college and career. The second thing I would say is that the testing is going to come in a couple of years. That’s going to be a big change. We have to be prepared for that. We have to understand that when something is implemented, you will see changes in how school performance is viewed and how your child has performed academically. And the third thing is that you have to ask your district how they’re going to prepare for the new demands of this curriculum, and for the process of taking the test and understanding the results of it.

Arun Ramanathan is Executive Director of EdTrust West, an Oakland-based educational policy, research, and advocacy organization working to address the educational needs and challenges confronting California’s low-income students and students of color.