Bay Area Indian Americans Question Shift to Common Core

Bay Area Indian Americans Question Shift to Common Core

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Ed. Note: In this four-part series produced in collaboration with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and New America Media, India-West will explain what the Common Core is; explore ways the Common Core will impact Indian American students and their families; learn how teachers are being prepared; and discuss new testing methods and standards.

San Jose, Calif. — If you haven’t noticed already, a new way of learning has taken hold in California public schools. This new model, called the Common Core State Standards, presents new challenges and opportunities to Indian American students and their parents.

But despite its promises many in the community wonder at changing a system that — for them at least — was working so well.

“[In India], a lot of effort was placed on memorization and recitation, and the Common Core State Standards definitely run counter to that methodology,” Vandana Makker, an Indian American teacher at San Lorenzo High School, told India-West in an e-mail.

“I have worked as a teacher for 14 years and I have seen a lot of ‘new ideas’ come and go … If the government says ‘Do this, or else,’ and doesn't provide any real support — especially for high-needs schools — and doesn’t listen to feedback from people actually doing the work, then it doesn't really matter what the standards say. Struggling students will still struggle and successful students will still be successful.”

Some Indian American parents tend to credit the Indian system and its approach to learning with their community’s high rates of academic success.

Arun Ramanathan is CEO of Pivot Learning Partners, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers professional development, technical assistance and coaching to 80 school districts in California and around the country. He said the shift to the new standards is a “question for the Indian community in general. There are a lot of folks who very much like the traditional model, and see a lot of benefit.”

Indian Americans are in fact the single most highly educated immigrant group in this country. A 2013 study published by Pew Research on social and demographic trends notes that Indian Americans — who now number around 3.2 million nationwide — lead all other groups when it comes to education. Seven in 10 Indian American adults aged 25 and older have a college degree, compared with around half of all Americans of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Filipino ancestry, notes the Pew report.

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In a classroom at Overfelt High School in San Jose, Calif., students are transitioning to the more vigorous Common Core State Standards. (Lisa Tsering photo)

But supporters of the Common Core, including Ramanathan, argue the switch to the new standards is long overdue and that they will leave more students better prepared to meet the demands of a global economy.

“The Common Core actually starts with what children should know in order to succeed in college and be successful on entrance exams, and do well in college and graduate from college — and then works back through the grades,” explained Ramanathan in an interview with India-West.

As a young immigrant from India who was an English learner when he came to the United States, Ramanathan is especially sensitive to the needs of language learners in the system. “Acquiring English proficiency is a different thing than just learning to read,” he said, adding there are “English learner standards now that are also aligned with the Common Core in California.”

What is the Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards were adopted by California in 2010 and are now in place in every public and public charter school across the state, although the California Dept. of Public Education states that it will take several years before all the instructional materials and assessments are brought up to date.

The Common Core is not a curriculum; instead, it is a set of standards in English Language Arts and mathematics that show where a student should be at each grade level. The new standards place a greater emphasis on critical thinking and analysis.

Whereas the previous California State Standards have often been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” advocates say the Common Core instead urges students to delve more deeply into fewer subject areas. It also emphasizes peer-to-peer collaboration on projects, requires students to more fully articulate their knowledge of the material, and integrates English Language Arts into every other facet of the curriculum.

The standards replace President George W. Bush’s highly politicized No Child Left Behind program and were first proposed by University of California head Janet Napolitano. While serving as Arizona’s governor, and chairing the National Governors Association, she was disturbed at the way American students were increasingly falling behind their peers around the world in terms of college readiness — by some accounts as many as 40 percent of U.S. college freshmen needed remedial classes, and academic standards were painfully inconsistent from state to state.

So she convened a board of experts who consulted with educators here and observed top-performing schools in places like Singapore, Finland and Korea. As Ramanathan puts it, “As a nation, we had different standards state to state in terms of English Language Arts and mathematics. The California state standards were some of the most rigorous state standards in the nation, but other state standards were quite low. There was no actual ability to compare — it was apples and oranges. No, it was apples to carrots.”

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High school English teacher Dina Staggs says her students enjoy the ways Common Core pushes them to express themselves with more confidence. (Lisa Tsering photo)

In 2009, the National Governors Association and education commissioners of 46 states — working with school administrators, parents, teachers and experts — agreed to implement the Common Core State Standards; California has been rolling out the Common Core since 2010 with a budget of $400 million from the state’s General Fund.

The Common Core has enjoyed wide support from the nation’s top mathematics educators, the national PTA, the United States Army and 72 top employers such as Accenture, Eli Lilly & Co., Time Warner and Raytheon who even took out a group ad last year in the New York Times to express their support. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, its biggest supporter, has spent over $200 million to expand it.
But the Common Core has also faced a backlash from some Republican lawmakers, who feel it “nationalizes curriculum” over the desires of individual states.

Conservative Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Common Core. In August, the Indian American lawmaker sued President Obama for violating federal law and the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution by coercing states to adopt Common Core.

Pivot Learning partner CEO Ramanathan believes the Common Core should transcend politics. “Whether Common Core came in or not, we needed a substantial refreshing of our standards to reflect everything that we’ve learned over the past decade-plus about how children learn and what they should be learning in our classrooms, so that they can be eligible for college and go on to have a great career,” he explained during this reporter’s visit to his downtown San Francisco office.

“Lost in the politics of the Common Core is that we should have been doing this every five years, not waiting 12 years or 14 years to refresh our standards.”

‘The Confidence to Think’

Vito Chiala is principal at Overfelt High School in San Jose. The student population at the school is overwhelmingly Latino, many of them English learners from low-income families where one or both parents never graduated college. Indian American students are in the minority at Overfelt, though they’re numerous enough to merit a school Bollywood cultural club.

“Math is where you see the biggest change [under Common Core], especially with algebra, geometry and statistics,” noted Chiala. He explained that with Common Core’s new math standards, students are expected to learn multiple ways to solve problems and to be able to explain verbally or in writing how they got their answers.

He continued, “That same increased emphasis on reading, writing and speaking extends even to social science and physical education.”

In November, a team of reporters toured classrooms at Overfelt to watch how teachers incorporated Common Core standards into their daily lessons. In teacher Jennifer Castro’s geography class, high schoolers watched a commercial-free CNN Student News report on the environmental degradation in megacities and related it to the urban sprawl just outside San Jose; in teacher Dina Staggs’ neighboring English class, kids compared the ways the media perpetuated racial and gender stereotypes with some animated discussion.

Staggs is sold on the Common Core. Under the previous standards, she told India-West, students “were used to being spoonfed. It’s not that they couldn’t think before, it’s that they didn’t have the confidence to think.”

(Lisa Tsering wrote this article as part of the Informed Communities Education Reporting Fellowship, a partnership between New America Media and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. This story originally appeared in the Dec.19 print edition of India West.)