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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 11th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 27 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 27

Exploring Common Core

California's next round of academic standards encourages students to think differently, but many educators worry about the transition from old to new


Teacher on special assignment Bama Medley is spearheading the Common Core changeover effort for math in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.

There were more than 30 students, broken up into small groups, bending their heads over massive, white sheets of art paper, as they pulled out a rainbow array of colored markers and started hashing out math problems.

It was after school on Sept. 5, and the groups were huddled around long tables in the Tunnell Elementary School cafeteria. No, the work wasn’t a detention punishment, and the students weren’t really elementary school-aged either.

They were sixth-grade teachers participating in what Santa Maria-Bonita School District calls a Red Day. That’s a teacher-training day, and it’s generally dedicated to presenting new kinds of curriculum and professional development.

Teachers worked through a sample lesson showcasing a new way of teaching math, part of an incoming statewide system known as Common Core. They drew pictures, worked out equations, and discussed the various and sundry ways to arrive at the number 2.4.

In their activity, they covered all eight mathematical practices outlined in Common Core. The new standards—which also include English/language arts and literacy, all adopted by California in 2010—are finally making their way into classrooms, and are something every student from third grade through high school will be tested on in the 2014-2015 school year.

Santa Maria-Bonita started its slow trek forward by familiarizing teachers with the new standards during last year’s Red Days. The district only worked with math then, but this year’s teachers are going more in-depth with math concepts, as well as beginning training in English/language arts.

Teachers are expected to start pulling Common Core math into their classrooms as they feel comfortable. One of the people helping the district’s educators through that task is Bama Medley, a teacher on special assignment. Her areas of expertise are math and science.

Medley said this change is a big shift away from the way things have been done since California adopted its last set of education standards in 1997.

The point is “to get the kids to start thinking about their thinking rather than memorize a process and try to apply it,” she explained.

But first, some educators need to be retrained—not just in how they teach, but how they think about teaching. Medley called this a transitional phase, as trained professionals have to adapt to being asked to teach their students differently.

She said many teachers felt that last year’s Red Days didn’t do enough to show them how to teach Common Core math, so she took it upon herself to reorganize the structure just to see how it would work. Last year’s sessions were run in conjunction with the Santa Barbara County Education Office. Although those trainings explored Common Core standards and math practices, teachers wanted a practical example they could take back into the classroom.

Every group at the Sept. 5 session answered the 2.4 prompt in its own way. Some teachers drew bar and pie diagrams to illustrate the number; others drew dots. One group taped two $1 bills and four dimes to their paper.

After group presentation time, they all discussed what they’d shared, argued different points, and backed up their arguments. The whole exercise took about half an hour.

It was a simple task on the surface, but ended up being complex. Using one number, teachers added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, used variables, messed around with diagrams, problem solved, gave their opinions and reasoning, and used a number line.

The result of the lesson is exactly what Common Core is all about: going deeper into understanding something by using critical thinking, sound reasoning, and collaboration.

Many teachers the Sun spoke with agreed that the concept will be great for students. But those same teachers are also concerned about what the tests and accountability measures will be like, whether they’ll have enough time to teach, how the transition period will unfold, and how it will impact their classrooms and students who 
are used to learning in a certain way.


Course materials pending

Teachers attended a Red Day training session after school on Sept. 5 to get a better overall picture of what a Common Core math lesson actually entails.

One of the big issues at this date in the transition-game is that teachers don’t have the actual course materials in their hands yet.

Over the summer, the California Department of Education’s curriculum people, volunteers, and others have been working on finalizing the publishers who will make the math cut list. Medley happens to be on one of the committees looking through the textbooks and materials. She’s the district’s inside track to what’s going on at the state level—at least for math.

“I want to make sure our kids get the best,” Medley said. “I’m able to look at these things; I’m able to give a heads-up to the teachers in this district.”

Medley’s a volunteer on one of 12 committees of nine people each. Every committee is looking at materials from three different publishers. She and all the others involved with this task have spent the majority of their summer combing over the material and matching it up with a Common Core checklist. The week of this publication, Sept. 9, Medley planned to head to Sacramento to help her group make a final determination for each publisher reviewed.

She said her husband has often asked her why she volunteers so much of her time to education and teased her about using the summer months to pore over instructional materials.

“This is my public service,” she answers.

In the past, she was also a member of what’s now the Instructional Quality Commission, to which the 12 committees will report their final decisions. The commission is charged with recommending to the state Board of Education which publishers’ Common Core materials made the cut. Once that happens, the board will come up with a list of viable Common Core course texts to choose from, and schools will be able to pilot the materials.

Medley said schools most likely won’t pilot materials until the 2014-2015 school year. That’s when almost every student in California will be tested on Common Core. The course materials process has yet to begin on the English/language arts side of things, but it will follow the same sort of schedule.

“The timeline is a bit ambitious,” Medley said of California’s expected rollout to full Common Core status.

But she also believes it’s a way of teaching for which you don’t automatically need materials.

“I’d like to think that we don’t have to have a book necessarily,” she said. “If we know what’s in front of us, if we pay attention, then we can take the kids there.”


Big tests

Santa Maria-Bonita piloted the new tests, known as Smarter Balance assessments, in seven of its schools at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. In some sense, the district is ahead of most—and does know some of what lies ahead.

Smarter Balance assessments are a combination of three kinds of tests taken online. One is multiple choice, just like STAR tests are now. One is computer adaptive; students will be asked questions based on how they answered the previous question. And the third will be a prompt to which students will be expected to respond by writing an analytical or argumentative essay about what they think and why.

The district’s new assistant superintendent of curriculum, Olivia Bolaños, said the testing went well, but it also showed them what they’re up against in terms of technology and how to facilitate testing. One big eye-opener for the district was that the computer literacy of students wasn’t up to snuff.

Bolaños also said testing on computers brings with it a whole new set of logistical issues.

Sixth-grade teachers (from left to right) Tamara Glenn-Katz, Monica Jensen, and Aimee Isvak discuss how they will complete the first activity of a Common Core math training, which involved the many different ways to show the number 2.4.

“If everything is technology-based, then we have to make it fair,” Bolaños said. “How do you make it fair when you have a limited amount of technology and 800 students to test?”

Those 800 students at one school in the district have to be tested in a set number of weeks. Who gets to test first is a big question that needs to be answered.

And not all Santa Maria-Bonita schools have access to the same technology. Bolaños said the district isn’t where it needs to be in terms of numbers of computers or access to technology at the moment.

“We’ll get there,” Bolaños said. “We do anticipate getting some money for Common Core.”

The California Department of Education is in the middle of releasing $1.25 billion in state funds to support districts as they implement Common Core, according to a Sept. 4 press release. That same press release announced pending legislation that would suspend STAR testing in the state and allow more schools to pilot the Smarter Balance assessments at the end of this school year.

“It’s time for a clean break from assessments that are out of date and out of sync with the work our schools are doing to shift to the Common Core,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said. “It’s simply wrong to expect schools to prepare our students for the future while continuing to ask them to use tests that are products of the past.”

The state’s announcement should take a little pressure off educators. Many teachers the Sun spoke with were concerned about trying to switch students over to Common Core while still being on the hook for old testing standards.


Nationwide standards

California isn’t the only state that’s chosen the Common Core pathway In fact, it’s in the solid majority.. Although not all states are choosing to educate their students to the core, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the concept so far.

States came up with the standards in 2007-2008 with an aim to level the playing field for students across the nation, and hold them all accountable to the same set of standards.

While the federally mandated No Child Left Behind program holds states to the standard of students being “proficient” or better, the system largely allows individual states to set their respective proficiency bars. So a student labeled as proficient in California might not meet the same standard as a student in Kansas who was testing at the proficient level.

Another impetus behind Common Core is to get students ready to survive in the 21st century, in a world that is constantly innovating and information about anything can be pulled from an electronic device.

Anna Merriman, a Common Core coach with Pivot Learning, said many businesses and universities complained that students weren’t prepared to hit the ground running after they graduated high school. Critical thinking and sound reasoning skills were missing, as was the ability to efficiently collaborate with others. She said the foundation of Common Core is to teach students to decipher the world for themselves.

“You don’t just learn the process, you learn to apply what you’ve learned in real-life situations,” Merriman said. “We are trying to prepare students for jobs that aren’t even created yet … the skills they learn have to be sustainable.”

Pivot Learning was hired by the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District to get its schools, teachers, and administrators ready for the Common Core. Merriman started her first sessions with school administrators at the end of August and thinks now is an exciting time for education.

“Common Core gives us a national baseline,” Merriman said. “Teachers are going to become better facilitators of learning; that’s going to be a real challenge.”

But, Merriman added, that challenge, that transition will bring a much-needed change to the nation’s education system. And as states and educators make that transition, pitfalls, successes, and techniques can be shared across state lines. It’s an innovative process that not one person knows better than another.

“We’re all just in the beginning and understanding stages,” Merriman said.


Transition questions

Pie diagrams are one way to show the number 2.4 without using the actual number.

Almost everybody in education would agree that, in the long run, this shift in education will eventually be a good one, but it’s going to be a difficult process in the short-run.

Shannon Verbryke, a sixth-grade teacher with Santa Maria-Bonita, said she’s starting to use bits and pieces of Common Core math in her classroom, but it’s been a challenge.

“It’s kind of weird to start teaching a program without the materials,” Verbryke said. “I think they want us to start thinking like the kids, too.”

For teachers who were around before 1997, this method of teaching circles back to the way it was before California adopted state standards. But for teachers like Verbryke, who’s taught for nine years, it’s completely new. She said her lessons were essentially pre-planned by the textbooks.

“You opened your teacher’s book and it said, ‘day one you do this, day two you do this, day three you do this,” Verbryke said. “It was completely mapped out for you.”

The big change is that the lesson isn’t planned out for teachers anymore, and the answers aren’t cut and dry. 

“Now it’s more, ‘here’s the concept,’” Verbryke said.

It’s her job to ask students, not necessarily for the right answer, but why they think an answer is correct and how they got there.

She said getting some of her students to simply memorize and write down their answers is a hard task, especially with English learners. So getting them to explain why they came up with an answer is going to be difficult.

She did note that one really great thing about the change is fewer standards. There are fewer things students will be required to learn, but those students will be required to understand the concepts on a deeper level. She said having fewer things to cover would, hopefully, give her the extra class time she needs to get into more detail than she can now.

Verbryke worked in a group with four other sixth-grade teachers during the Sept. 5 Red Day at Tunnell Elementary. They brainstormed about the second activity teachers were asked to do: create a sample lesson plan using the 2.4 activity as a model.

The lesson they chose to plan was on exponents. Yes, students in sixth grade are learning exponents. Their number was 23, and the prompts they came up with were: “Express 23 in two different forms,” “Prove that 23 is not the same as two times three,” and “When would you utilize exponents?”

“You guys are the bomb,” Red Day organizer Medley told the group about their lesson plan.

All of the group members expressed concern about the transition to Common Core and agreed that they probably wouldn’t see the full benefits until they got students who began learning Common Core as kindergarteners.

Group member Sharon Ybarra said she started using Common Core math about halfway through last year.

“By the end of the year they were good at it—making arguments and backing up their points,” Ybarra said. “If you slowly add things, you’ll get used to teaching them, or how you teach them, and students will get used to answering and thinking in a certain way.”


Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at

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