Common Core incurs uncommon costs for Modesto area schools

naustin@modbee.comNovember 2, 2013 

Hickman Middle School student Dylan Nichols did a good deed, raising $10,000 for more computers at his elementary school. Hickman Elementary now has enough Chromebooks for a full class. Dylan’s gift brings the rural district into the Common Core ready zone.

The Hickman Community Charter district had already done the background work, outfitting the campus with Wi-Fi, Superintendent Paul Gardner said at an Oct. 25 ceremony for the opening of the computer lab. With 35 computers, the 300-student Hickman Elementary will be ready for online testing that begins with a trial run in the spring, he said.

State funding for Common Core – about $200 per student – is being split among technology needs, textbooks and training.

That per-student amount is a fraction of what school districts, the state and nation will shell out to implement the new Common Core philosophy, standards and teaching techniques – and legions of companies and consultants have lined up to help them spend it.

Modesto City Schools, with nearly 30,000 students, will have more than $5 million in Common Core funding to spend. Tiny Knights Ferry School District, with about 90 students, gets $17,800, which will mostly go to buying computers, said Superintendent Cheryl Griffiths.

Districts will also need to buy new materials matched to Common Core standards for what students learn in each grade, and the state has yet to weigh in with approved choices. It last approved math books in 2007 and English textbooks focused on fiction in 2008.

Common Core demands kids grapple with factual information, for which most schools have dusted off old science and social-studies books. Those subjects were only tested in certain grades under No Child Left Behind, and sometimes other grades skipped them altogether.

But recycling books goes only so far because of dramatic changes in what is taught, district instruction specialists said. Math will change the most, with some skills being taught in different grades and a full reboot for the age-old nemesis of fractions.

To answer the need, a n industry has grown up around Common Core. Choices for what to teach students range from paper textbooks, tablet apps, online games and videos. Software programs identify areas teachers need to re-teach based on missed test questions. Districts can invest in focused lesson plans, games, workbooks or activities to address those areas.

Much of the same also exists online for free. The California Learning Resources Network, based in Modesto, is one of the groups evaluating those options.

The cost of Common Core goes beyond new textbooks and technology. Districts are also spending heavily to update teachers on the standards and strategies.

After a decade of test-centered, assembly-line lessons, veteran teachers say, they are taking a different approach to lessons – far more like the teaching of a generation ago. Goodbye pacing calendars and subject blocks timed to the minute. Hello interactive lectures and hands-on activities. Collaboration is the new buzzword, and teachers will be expected to share lessons and work in teams.

The last time California rolled out new standards, in 1997-98, the state spent $3 billion, and everything from teacher training to textbooks was prescribed by the state. “This time, we are going to let the pendulum swing the other way,” Ben Sanders of the nonprofit California Office to Reform Education told the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet.

How the money is spent is up to the districts, Sanders said, as long as they restrict themselves to training, instructional materials or technology that will help them implement Common Core, and they’re “public about what they spend it on.”

Turlock Unified has about $2.8 million to spend: $1 million for technology, $1 million for materials and much of the rest for teacher training, said Superintendent Sonny Da Marto. The district is taking it slow, Da Marto said. “We are being very careful and thoughtful about every dollar we spend,” he said.

A 2012 study by Theodor Rebarber of AccountabilityWorks, a Maryland-based advocacy group, estimated implementation nationally could cost as much as $15.8 billion.

“A lot of publishers and companies view it as an economic imperative for survival to say they’re aligned to Common Core,” Rebarber told the Hechinger Report. However, he said, there has been little study of how well these products deliver what’s needed to effectively teach Common Core.

“What we’re being very careful about is not buying a label that says it’s Common Core,” said Debi Bukko, director of curriculum and instruction for Ceres Unified. Ceres is waiting for the dust to settle before buying technology, Bukko said. Right now teachers are using a mix of old textbooks and other publications as English teaching materials, she said.

Training teachers remains the district’s focus. “Our teachers are poised very well to be good consumers,” Bukko said.

Few school districts have enough experts on staff to review and compare the products, said Jeannette LaFors, of Education Trust-West, a nonpartisan group. “There just is not enough direction for educators to choose what’s best,” she told the Hechinger Report. “It’s like trying to drink from a water hydrant at this point.”

“We are absolutely being inundated with emails and ads seeking our business,” said Sylvan Superintendent Debra Hendrix. She said the district is scrutinizing quality, price and service agreements – and getting multiple bids.

Salida teachers went to a “tech fair,” trying out different tablets and computers, said Superintendent Twila Tosh. The district will spend nearly half of its $512,000 for Common Core on computers. The teachers picked Chromebooks. The district plans to eventually provide every third- through eighth-grade student with one, Tosh said.

Hickman hopes to do the same, said Gardner. “What we find is the computer becomes very ubiquitous. The lesson is no longer about technology. It’s just a tool for them,” he said. Gardner chose the Google-based device for its low price, $279, and applications, like email and word processing. “The great thing for us is all these tools are free,” Gardner said.

Dylan said he took on the fundraising project because he got bored waiting his turn on the 20 devices available last year. “They didn’t have enough computers,” he said. “They need it for the Common Core, to learn to type, make (presentations) – and now is better than later,” he said.

Few districts have a dedicated student fundraiser. But they can pool their expertise and drastically cut their costs, said Patrick Murphy, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco who studied the cost of switching to Common Core. “These new standards have the chance to change things,” he said, “and I would hate to see a missed opportunity.”

This story was produced with contributions from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, as part of a package of reports on Common Core. Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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