Alameda's schools prepare for Common Core

Alameda's schools prepare for Common Core

Michele Ellson

Teacher Andy Lee takes parents through a "close reading" exercise. Photo by Michele Ellson.

It’s monthly meeting time for Franklin Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Association, and a few dozen parents are crammed into tight rows of paper-jammed desks. Andy Lee is at the front of the room, projecting a “close reading” exercise from his laptop.

Parents are asked to read a passage that Lee presents to sixth-grade classes and to talk in groups about what they find challenging about it, and then, to re-read it and break it down into discrete chunks and key points. Ultimately, Lee asks them to pull out items for additional research and to share what they believe the writer’s message is.

“So we have a bunch of potential answers to this question, right?” he says of the list of responses. “There’s no clearly right answer to this.”

School districts across the nation are implementing new Common Core State Standards intended to bring schools’ college and career readiness efforts into the 21st century, and exercises like Lee’s offer a glimpse of what parents and students can expect to see more of when the effort is fully rolled out next year.

“When I’m doing this well as a teacher, I’m asking an unbelievable amount of questions,” Lee says. They say, ‘What does this mean?’ and I say, ‘What do you think it means?’ The goal is not to say, ‘Oh, this is the answer I’m looking for,’ but to search for the knowledge.”

English classes will balance literature with informational texts; in math, students will be allowed to demonstrate different paths toward reaching an answer – a major departure from the way most of their parents learned how to add and subtract. Subject-based learning will be tied to real-world events – and even, students’ own interests – in order to provide them more of a sense of purpose toward their learning, with an overarching emphasis on research and analysis.

“Kids are really digging into what they’re reading and what it says. It’s less about how they feel about it, and more about their point and what supports it,” Lee said.

Educators interviewed by The Alamedan for this story expressed excitement about what they said is a welcome departure from more than a decade of teaching to maximize performance on multiple-choice tests, which they said offer a poor measure of what a student really knows. And they said programs that Alameda’s schools already have in place will ensure a smoother transition to the new standards here than the bumpy one other states have endured.

Still, they acknowledged that the new system – for which curriculum and tests are not yet fully developed – is fraught with uncertainty. The district is in the midst of developing lessons for next year – there’s no state-approved curriculum – and must still work out how they’ll address learning for English learners and struggling students and the use of technology, among other things.

“It’s not like a complete package has been designed,” Franklin principal Jo Fetterly tells parents as the lesson concludes. “Everything we’re doing with it is being developed and refined as we speak.”

Students won’t be taking multiple-choice tests this year thanks to a new state law eliminating them; instead, students in grades three through eleven will take computer-based English and math “testlets” in the spring.

Lee says the new standards are as much about changing the way teachers impart their lessons to students as they are about implementing standards for lessons to be based on. And while students may not score as well at first on new tests that will assess their comprehension and analytical skills instead of rote learning, he said teachers will have a better idea of how much their pupils have truly learned.

“At some point we have to move away from testing as the end-all and be-all. That’s different from what we’ve been telling people over the years,” Lee said. “The thing you lose when you test on multiple choice and fill in the blank is, you lose their thinking.”


For more than a decade, American students’ learning has been tied to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which aims to have every student in the country proficient in grade level English and math by 2015. Proficiency was gauged by multiple-choice tests that start in second grade, and schools and school districts that fail to meet proficiency targets can be sanctioned.

“Ever since No Child Left Behind got started, most of the discussion I’ve been hearing from teachers is a pretty strong dissatisfaction with the kind of multiple choice, lack of depth in the assessments that were being required for schools and for students,” said John Nolan, an English teacher at Island High School and 2010 Alameda County Teacher of the Year. While the goals of the law are noble, he said, it offers “a simplistic approach toward what schools are all about.”

New research released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that Americans are far behind their international peers in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. American youths ages 16 to 24 came in last among 21 countries studied in problem solving and numeracy skills and second to last in literacy, besting only Italy.

“The status quo over the last 12 years – I don’t think anybody in public education thinks that’s going to cut the mustard,” Nolan said.

The new standards aim to address this performance gap by making English classes more rigorous – focusing more on comprehension and analysis than recall – and by working to ensure students understand why two times two is four, instead of just memorizing multiplication tables. And their drafters – the standards were spearheaded by a group of governors and captains of industry intent on building a better workforce – promise more emphasis on history, science and other subjects that haven’t been as closely tracked through standardized testing; the standards will be woven into these subjects, too, as they are rolled out. New science standards are due out in the spring, and social studies standards are pending.

Students in kindergarten through second grade will focus on basics, building the foundations of literacy –reading fluency, vocabulary building, comprehension and phonics – along with writing and math; the push toward deeper learning will continue in earnest in grades three to 12. All students will use more informational texts as a precursor to college and careers, and they will be able to user their own interests as reference points for the lessons being taught.

A student seeking a career in a trade like plumbing will need to be able to read informational text to perform their duties, Assistant Superintendent Barbara Adams said, and algebra is also a must. Under the new standards, students will learn critical thinking skills they’ll need to become effective leaders and innovators, she said.

Another key shift: The new standards will offer educators the chance to promote deeper learning of a handful of topics, instead of skimming over massive amounts of material, educators said.

“You don’t have to teach everything every year. Less is more,” said Phil Gonsalves, a mathematician who’s spearheading the district’s effort to improve students’ proficiency in math. “Instead of a mile wide and an inch deep, Common Core is letting us go an inch wide and a mile deep.”

Nolan said the imposition of No Child Left Behind effectively shut teachers out of the decision-making process around what to teach and how, and that Common Core is “a great sea change” that has given teachers the opportunity to work together to learn the standards and decide how to implement them in the classroom. Students will still get much of the same curriculum being taught now, he said; the goal will be to deepen their skill in each subject.

Nolan’s class is reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and one student asked about whether big agriculture companies could face lawsuits if their products sicken customers. Students will be doing more of that type of research after Common Core is implemented, he said.

While some have criticized the new standards as demoting literature, Nolan said that they allow English teachers to teach it more deeply, and with more connection to the modern world. For example, he said a class reading Hamlet might read a magazine article that discusses the character in more detail.

“These are the kinds of things we’re talking about, something connected to the content that is informational, as opposed to purely teaching literature per se,” he said.

The district uses a program called Inquiry by Design to promote deeper reading, writing and discourse, with an eye toward building critical thinking skills. The program, which has been used for several years in grades six through 12 and is in its second year of piloting at grades four and five, has students performing the close reading, analysis and classroom collaboration that are expected under Common Core.

A second program, the math initiative spearheaded by Gonsalves, offers students the opportunity to use different methods to arrive at answers in order to build their numeracy skills. Through the program, teachers get training and weekly coaching support – like professional athletes, Gonsalves said – and they use data to assess the success of their efforts. He has also created parent study guides to help them understand the new math, and the district conducts “parent university” nights for further explanation.

The program – which he said Superintendent Kirsten Vital agreed to re-start at the behest of teachers after it was dropped by a prior superintendent – puts Alameda’s schools ahead of the curve on implementing the new standards.

“I can’t tell you enough how excited I am for Alameda, because they’ve been on the cutting edge of this way before there was any talk about Common Core,” Gonsalves said.

Other states that have implemented Common Core already have struggled, he said, because they haven’t offered the same level of professional development Alameda Unified provides. Test scores for students in grades three through eight plunged in New York after the state implemented new standards-aligned tests this past year; teachers and student advocates blamed a lack of curricular development and professional development for the decline in proficiency, while political and school leaders said the scores were preliminary and a sign of rising standards.

Rather than relying on standard addition and subtraction methods, the new math uses a method called decomposition, which allows students to break up the numbers in order to more easily solve math problems. Students trying to subtract 376 from 1,000, for example, could break the latter number into 999+1 and add the 1 back later – which eliminates the need to carry and borrow – or break the number into more finite bits on a number line.

“It’s the modeling of different ways of how you get to an answer. As long as you can explain it, and it makes sense, it should be acceptable. And in the past it wasn’t acceptable,” Adams said of the new math.

Younger students will focus on whole numbers, while high schoolers will still get algebra, geometry and calculus, Gonsalves said. But the standards all students must meet are “much more focused” than the ones they’re replacing, he said.

“They’re much clearer, and much more coherent across grade levels,” he said.

Educators said the changes have already had a positive impact on their pupils. Suki Mozenter said the level of engagement in her fifth grade class at Paden Elementary School has “increased significantly” since the school’s teachers began working to align their instruction to the new standards.

“They’re really coming out of their shells,” Mozenter said.

Before Common Core, teachers would ask students more questions they already know the answers to, she said; now questions are more open-ended, without obvious answers. Students initially balked at the increased amount of writing they were being asked to do, she said; but once they got over that hump, she saw students who hadn’t been successful in school before gain a voice in the classroom.

Nolan said his students have offered a much more positive response to the new standards than they did to the old ones put in place.

“When I mention these new standards to students, I don’t get any resistance. I don’t get any sense of, this is meaningless or this is stupid,” Nolan said. “They kind of have way more respect about this transition.”

Mozenter said the transition is difficult, but that things should become easier as assessments are implemented and educators have a few years of scores to work with. And while the changes may be challenging, she and Nolan said society is facing some major challenges in the not-too-distant future and that education is the key to helping their charges solve them.

“I believe in the power of public education, that it impacts society significant way,” Mozenter said. “With the shift in standards, I see a positive change in public discourse, in the ways we hold people accountable in disagreements and debates. I think it has that potential.”

Link: Alameda Unified School District Common Core web page