Core Candor: Tips for families in a transition year

08/09/2014 8:18 PM

08/09/2014 8:18 PM

So much will change in schools this year – new standards, new books, more computers, more lessons that ask kids to read, write and think for themselves. As students with stiff new backpacks and next-size-up shoes step onto those big, yellow buses Monday morning, families will need to roll into this brave new world with them.

“We continue to share the message with parents and our community that our students will be just fine through this transition, and we look forward to supporting all learners in the process,” Debra Hendricks, superintendent of the Sylvan Union School District in north Modesto, said about the new Common Core State Standards.

Students will weather this change, just as they have dozens of educational reforms that came before. But the Common Core standards are meant to shake up a system educators and business leaders saw as not working, and that will shake out as changes in classrooms.

“They’ve always had standards. The difference is these standards are hooked to college and career readiness, so there’s a lot of reading, a lot of writing and a lot of expectations of communication by the students,” said Tammie Calzadillas, assistant superintendent of the large Merced Union High School District.

Common Core asks students to solve real-world dilemmas that, like real life, could have a number of ways of looking at them and more than one right answer. The key will be explaining answers in a way that shows they got the concept.

To help students learn to do this, Calzadillas advised parents to ask questions about what their kids are learning and not settle for one-word responses. “Have them explain things to you instead of giving them the answers,” she said. “Have them take a different side of the argument. Create what-ifs – and what-ifs do not have standard answers.”

In math and reading in all grades, the new standards will ask students to think things through and explain, a harder job than parroting back what they read. But the payoff will be kids who really get it, said Modesto City Schools elementary instructional coaches who responded to a Modesto Bee inquiry as a group.

“Yes, students will be challenged and the expectations will be higher. But with higher expectations will come a set of more successful students,” the teachers wrote.

“Homework will look different,” they noted. Assignments will add more challenging components. Expect to see questions asking them to write explanations – in math as well as reading tasks. “They will be problem-solving. It will most likely require multiple responses,” the group wrote.

Common Core reading comprehension tests, especially in upper grades, may ask about the author’s intent, the piece’s tone or for broad themes. Things elementary parents can do:

• Read aloud to your children and discuss what you read. Ask them to draw conclusions and tell you where in the story they got that idea.
• Have your children read more, including nonfiction and more challenging books. The more they read, the more they learn.
• Talk about the frustration and keep encouraging them. Keep in contact with teachers to check your child’s progress.

The Common Core standards officially begin this year, but many districts began the switch last year. County offices of education and school districts have provided ongoing teacher training in adapting lessons and brushing up on cross-subject skills.

“I believe all teachers in MCS district are better teachers today than they were before CC because of a better awareness of how students learn, best practices, and a combining of the art and science of teaching,” Downey High School English teacher Bill McHale said.

High schools students will need computers with an Internet connection, but schools are ramping up technology to cover the gap for teens without. Increasingly, assignments will be turned in online and group projects will be done from home.

“The more practice and confidence they have using computers allows them to focus on content when they write and not the mechanical aspects of using a keyboard,” McHale said. “Almost all students have phones and initially those will prove satisfactory as all of us – teachers maybe most of all – transition into an educational environment where technology is as normal as a pen and pencil.”

What parents can do to help teens most, he said, is by being sure their kids do their homework. “Turning in the work is No. 1,” McHale said.

Eventually all subjects, including Advanced Placement courses, are expected to shift toward Common Core standards. But math has changed the most.

“Math in particular is experiencing a whole new way of looking at instruction. Students will no longer be fed formulas and asked to memorize a teacher’s method,” said Enochs High math teacher Christina Rubalcava.

“There will be more collaboration in classrooms, more discussion, and more focus on the student driving the instruction,” she said by email. Homework assignments will be fewer, more complex problems. She recommends Khan Academy, MathTV.com and links in Common Core math texts to help kids through the tough spots.

Grading will, as always, vary by teacher, she said, with projects or performance tasks replacing unit tests in many cases. Participation may be graded as well. But more complex material does not necessarily translate to lower grades.

In a pilot Common Core math class Rubalcava taught last year to students struggling in algebra, she saw many grades shoot up two or more letters, from D’s to B’s. She credited their success to the slower, more targeted pace of Common Core integrated math, what Modesto calls Secondary Math I.

Their success is what Common Core proponents hope will be the norm – struggling kids find a footing and high-performing students leap further. But it will take several years and far larger numbers to tell. Traditionally stellar students who barely crack a book all year may find they have to buckle down to explain real-world scenarios. Kids whose attention wandered or could not grasp abstract concepts may find the hands-on lessons easier and streak ahead.

“The bottom line is you have to have a good work ethic,” Calzadillas said. “There will be a lot of stamina-building and frustration. A good work ethic lets kids see it through to the end. That’s something a lot of us will have to have in this implementation year,” she said, predicting it will take three to five years to get it right.

That was about how long it took to master the 1990s standards Common Core replaced, she added. “It’s an exciting time to be in education.”

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