Valley teachers learn a new way of instructing

naustin@modbee.comMay 27, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Think of it as the difference between reading the recipe and baking the cake.

In classrooms across California, teachers have gotten amazingly good at helping children read what amounts to recipes, memorizing ingredients and mastering vocabulary.

Common core standards, however, expect everyone to get in there and cook.

"It's about concepts, not procedures. I can teach them the steps in multiplying fractions. That's procedure, and we are really good at it. I've seen you laboriously teaching long division, step by step. But what's the concept? What happens to that number when you divide it?" trainer Debi Bukko asked Ceres Unified School District teachers at a workshop Thursday.

Dead silence.

"It gets smaller," Bukko said, and after a collective mental slap to the forehead, the room erupted in chatter. That "Aha!" moment came to teachers steeped in a generation of shallow test-prep teaching.

No time for cakes when the pacing calendar demanded that struggling students and bored high achievers all had to be on math text Page 232 and reading text Chapter 12 by Tuesday. Learn the formulas, master the vocabulary and move on.

"As a nonmath person, I kept asking (myself), 'Why am I doing this? I know the formulas. I can do that.' I knew the procedures, but I had no clue why," said Mary Flynn, a resource teacher at Blaker-Kinser Junior High.

"I could tell my kids had no comprehension at all. They read (the text), but if you ask them about it, they didn't understand it at all," said Irene Bautista, a math teacher at Ceres High.

Teachers still will need to teach the formulas, but starting this fall, students will have to be able to apply the concepts, discuss them, argue their answers — even wing it, on occasion.

"They have to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Students need to be doing the heavy lifting," said Bukko, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.

At her first training, Bukko said, she had two conflicting reactions. "I walked away at lunch thinking, one, I am so excited about these standards and, two, I can't even wrap my brain around how we're going to teach this. Part of me just wants to just sit back and have them tell me how to do this," she said.

In stark contrast to the almost mechanized teaching protocols and state curriculum guides of recent years, however, shifting to common core is intensely and intentionally local. Subject matter changes slightly in its timing, but the real meat of the change is how it's taught. Teacher buy-in and collaboration are seen as critical components.

Sue Rich of the Stanislaus County Office of Education said the shift from 1987 standards means "a new era of assessment, a new era of instruction and a new era of professional development."

Common standards were state-led, Rich said. "They were appalled to see students rated below basic on national tests, but advanced in their own states. It was in recognition that we need to level the playing field," she said.

Rick Bartkowski, spearheading the county office common core training efforts, predicted that the adults would have a more difficult time with the change than the kids. "It's a different mind-set," he said.

The latest budget proposals in Sacramento set aside about $170 per student to help make the move. It adds up to roughly $5 million for Modesto City Schools, Chief Business Official Julie Chapin calculated.

Every school district is moving toward the 2014-15 switch at its own pace. Modesto City Schools has been training teachers this year. At a January workshop on English standards, trainer Sue Gendron said common core means more complex ideas and more independent work in earlier grades.

Students will need to read and reread to answer better questions that have more than one answer. "What does author mean by … ? What clues does the author give to imply that … ?" are the types of questions teachers need to be asking, she said. "So often we ask a question about how they feel or something they can relate to," she added, instead of requiring them to analyze objectively.

Administrator Thor Harrison said more reading time is not enough. "They can be reading all day, but they may not get a lot out of it. They need to show and tell and write, make those connections," he said.

Connections run through all the standards, with math and reading expected to be infused into history, science and art projects. Learning while doing is a recurring theme.

Ceres started using common core methods in classrooms this year and is piloting common core adaptive testing. Reporters were not allowed to observe the testing or talk to any children being tested, but Bukko gave some insight into how it is going.

"I have this ray of hope. I know we have kids who have learned to be passive. But taking the Smarter Balanced test, which keeps challenging them, none of them stopped working. They were engaged because they were asked to think. Kids want to learn. They don't want to sit there bored," she said.

At the Ceres training, teacher Ed Krohn said his special-education students at Chavez Junior High will need a modified curriculum. "But this gets down to the nuts and bolts," he said. "I'm encouraged. I'm not naive enough to say there's not going to be a lot of challenges. But I'm hopeful.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin,


HISTORY: The U.S. Department of Education supports the standards, and a partisan battle rages over the federal role in education. But Common Cores State Standards were developed by states. The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched the framework at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., on June 2, 2010. The District of Columbia and 45 states adopted the standards.

WHY: State leaders felt too many students were graduating without key employment skills, needing remedial classes to start college and faring poorly by international measures. Every state's standards were different, making comparisons of test scores meaningless and, in effect, rewarding states for lower standards.

WHAT: The standards lay out what employers want and colleges expect of new recruits in English and math, working backward to specific skills for each grade based on child development research. The goals include traits such as persistence, analytical thinking and creativity — a new dimension for school responsibility.

ON THE WEB: For the standards as originally developed, visit and California's implementation of the standards at See sample test items at sample-items-and-performance-tasks. Find teaching resources at See a video on common core at

SPEAK NOW: The draft Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, is up for public comment through June 20. Visit to view and comment online, or see a paper copy at the Stanislaus County Office of Education, 1100 H St., Bob Gausman is the contact; or the Merced County Office of Education, 632 W. 13th St., Building J-1, Merced, John Magneson is the contact.

Sources: California Department of Education and the Common Core State Standards Initiative

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