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Science, math and, at last, parents’ common sense for Common Core

naustin@modbee.comNovember 20, 2013 

— California’s science and math aficionados gathered in Sacramento this week to talk about grand plans to improve standards in these fields, starting in kindergarten, with the end goal of matching the state’s grads with high numbers of highly skilled and unfilled jobs in those fields.

The 2,000 educators and industry reps got to hear celebrities, education experts and - personal favorite - 14-year-old Thomas Suarez. This very articulate young man can be seen at age 12 talking about making iPhone apps at a TED Talk.

His most successful app at the time was Bustin Jieber - “a Justin Bieber wack-a-mole” as he described it.

He had to figure out how to make them, he said. “For soccer, you could go to a soccer team. For violin, you could get lessons for a violin,” he said. But kids who want to make apps have to figure it out - parents could help with soccer or violin, but “not many parents have written apps.” So he started an app club at his school where kids can design their own apps.

Fast forward to this year, with Thomas at that California STEM Symposium. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Point of interest: There is also a movement toward STEAM, which adds an A for arts.

The STEM conference is all about the next science and math standards. Thomas’s determined, clear-eyed, self reliance and collaborative thinking is exactly what Common Core proposes: Kids working together to solve problems they find interesting.

Think of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew – those mysteries appealed to young readers because teens figured it all out. Encyclopedia Brown, a younger sleuth who found missing things like stamps and pets (and has a penchant for pancakes) was a favorite at my house.

The math standards in particular will bring big changes, and high time.

In my son’s elementary school I volunteered in the classroom and often worked with students who needed extra help in math. One day I worked with a group of sixth-graders who did not understand negative numbers – a pretty basic concept. Once I tossed the math book explanation and we worked on shopping with credit cards – money you have (positive numbers) vs. money you owe (negative numbers) – it clicked.

Real world examples, not long-winded explanations, were what was needed. So I take heart hearing that will be stressed in the new standards.

Teachers I’ve seen implementing it so far have said they find the faster pace and more interactive lessons a huge improvement, but these creative, excited people are the vanguard. There are bound to be teachers less enthusiastic – every big change has its critics. Implementation will be the thing to watch going forward.

California made the implementation more interesting by having every grade switch simultaneously. Some other states have rolled it out starting in early grades and moving up. There wasn’t time to do it grade by grade, but at least in going forward in chunks of grades there was some thought for those kids in middle grades switching horses midstream.

For parents who want to stay on top of the switch, good news arrived on Parent Involvement Day, which was Tuesday. The California Department of Education is partnering with actual parents to develop guides and activities to help families.

The state is working with PTA to distribute the PTA-developed Parents’ Guide to Student Success—a series of resources designed to help parents understand what their children will be learning at each grade level in English-language arts and mathematics. Find them on the California State PTA website.

Originally developed by the National PTA, each guide includes common sense information for the Common Core:

• An overview of some of the key items students will learn in the Common Core State Standards for English-language arts and mathematics.

• Ideas for activities that enable parents to support learning at home.

• Topics of discussion for talking with teachers about student academic progress.

“Parent Involvement Day is the perfect time to release these guides—because we know that well-informed, engaged parents can make all the difference in our work to give every student a world-class education,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.

“This is a crucial time for public education,” said California State PTA President Colleen A.R. You. “The new Common Core standards will help us prepare all students for college and careers, and help them develop vital critical thinking and deeper learning skills. We’re delighted to have Superintendent Torlakson’s support in sharing information as widely as possible with parents about what the new standards will mean for their children and schools.”

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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