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Hard Core 

Common core standards and assessments prompt some critical thinking among educators and governance teams

Marla Strich, a veteran governing board member with the Encinitas School District in San Diego County, had some fundamental questions for the experts who traveled to San Francisco to discuss the new Common Core State Standards at CSBA’s 2012 Annual Education Conference.

“How will this be different?” asked Strich with just a touch of weariness in her voice.  “Those of us who have been in education for a long time have seen a lot of new standards and ‘reforms.’ Is this the next ‘silver bullet’? I want to know how this will be better for our kids. What’s the timeline and where are the resources? How do we pay for it?”

School board members, teachers and administrators are grappling with tough questions like these throughout California and in 46 other states that have adopted the Common Core’s sweeping new standards in English-language arts and mathematics.

CSBA Programs Officer Christopher Maricle, author of an ongoing series of governance briefs addressing the role of school boards in the transition, was among the panelists who fielded Strich’s questions at last year’s workshop. According to Maricle, if the Common Core is to make a positive difference for students, governance teams must play a critical role in establishing spending and policy priorities and devising the framework to support the fundamental shift in teaching, learning and testing that will be required.

“I tell governance teams that it’s really up to them whether or not the Common Core makes a difference,” he says. “It’s got a great purpose, and it can make a difference, but so much depends on how governance teams approach these difficult tasks.”

Jannelle Kubinec, director of national, state and special projects for WestEd, a federal education laboratory, says governing teams need to ask themselves some basic questions:

“Is the Common Core a challenge, an opportunity or something we have to get through? Now’s really the time that [local educational agencies] need to get down to brass tacks.”

Radical changes

California is one of the governing states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, giving the Golden State a leadership role in designing the computerized assessments that will replace the multiple-choice bubble tests now used to measure students’ grasp of state standards.

The transition to the new system of teaching, learning and testing that will be required will be nothing short of revolutionary for many LEAs. Teachers nationwide have spent more than a decade now hustling students through a veritable forest of state curricula and standards, which in California has produced standards that have been called “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It was all designed to bring every American student to proficiency in English and math by 2014, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, and to meet California’s self-described “world-class” standards in a wide range of academic subjects.

The Common Core, in contrast, asks teachers to focus on critical thinking, problem-solving and analysis. It will be more important to know how to approach and solve a math problem, for example, than to come up with the right answer using a memorized formula. In English class, students will be asked to interpret and analyze both fiction and non-fiction texts to reach conclusions about the author’s intent and be prepared to defend their opinions.

WestEd’s Kubinec urges school leaders to visit the Smarter Balanced website and check out samples of questions that will be included on the new tests. “If governance teams aren’t nervous” after viewing these assessments, she says, “they aren’t paying attention.”

Adding to the pressure, standardized test scores are certain to plummet as students make the difficult transition from multiple-choice to Common Core assessments, with their new focus on writing and problem-solving. Districts will no doubt need help from the California Department of Education and their county offices of education to prepare parents and the public for what may look at first like very bad news about student achievement.

Getting technical

Those new assessments will also require LEAs to review whether their computer systems meet specific technological specifications having to do with bandwidth, connection speed and availability of equipment. The CDE is encouraging LEAs to fill out an online technology readiness survey ( to determine whether they have the needed computer capacity. Just 17 percent of California schools have indicated they’ve completed the survey, although nearly 60 percent have submitted some level of data since the survey went online and have received evaluations of their technological readiness for the new tests. 

Terri Rufert, superintendent of the one-school Sundale Union Elementary School District in Tulare County, says she’s glad her district participated in the survey. “It generated useful information that we were able to use to apply for a grant to help finance improvements in our system,” she says.

Flexibility, not funding

Over the past decade, a series of state budget crises and accompanying cuts in public funding for K-12 education have decimated local education budgets. Some LEAs worry they’ll soon lack the resources to keep the lights on and the buses running—much less to launch an education revolution. Instead of new funding, the state has given LEAs flexibility over how they spend categorical funds that had been reserved for specific programs in the past.

CDE officials acknowledge it’s doubtful that LEAs will receive any new funds to support the important and difficult work required for the Common Core transition: bringing computer systems up-to-date, training teachers for what will be a radically different method of instruction, and introducing new standards and a testing system unlike anything that’s gone before.

Education writer and author Peter Schrag says he supports the Common Core in theory but worries that state officials are expecting too much, too soon, with too little support.

“The state has committed to making the transition within the next year or two, at a time when school spending is being cut, teachers are being laid off, and the teaching force is already demoralized,” he wrote in a commentary for EdSource, the nonprofit public school think tank. “And the state expects the locals to buy the necessary materials. If this is not a sick joke, it’s close to it.”

The State Board of Education has decreed that LEAs can seek or develop their own instructional materials rather than choosing from the state-approved list, so long as these materials are aligned with the Common Core. The board is not scheduled to adopt new instructional materials until 2018, putting LEAs that must administer the first tests aligned to the Common Core in the 2014-15 school years in a real bind.

CSBA’s Maricle wrote about the difficulties inherent in this timeline in his first “Governing to the Core” governance brief. This means, he writes, that this year’s sophomores, who are “currently engaged in a learning program based on the current content standards for mathematics and ELA, will be tested in their senior year on assessments based on the Common Core.”

CSBA has not taken a formal position on the Common Core, but the association is actively lobbying for either additional funding or more time for LEAs to transition successfully to the new standards. 

“Our view is that the state either needs to allocate more resources to help districts and county offices of education prepare or give them more time to transition to the Common Core,” Maricle says.

Breathing room

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has recommended that the Legislature and State Board suspend much of the Standardized Testing and Reporting regime that’s based on current standards to give LEAs some breathing room to prepare for new assessments. (See “A Conversation with … Tom Torlakson”.)

Maricle and others warn that LEAs can’t afford to delay their Common Core implementation, and they cannot wait for the state to lead the way.

Roger Stock, chief academic officer with the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, advises districts to think of the Common Core as “a game changer.” Stock concedes that his district got a late start. But, he says, the delay gave the district the chance to learn from the experiences of other LEAs, adopting what’s worked elsewhere.

San Juan now boasts a resource-rich Common Core website, and has been expanding professional development for teachers, principals and other administrators. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we need our high school graduates to do to succeed in college and career?’” he says. “We needed to answer that question and look at the Common Core as a framework to get there.”

Stock appreciates the opportunity for greater autonomy. “I’m actually glad the state hasn’t figured this out for us,” he says.

Ten districts that are collaborating on a number of issues as the California Office for the Reform of Education have made effective implementation of the Common Core one of their goals. Representatives of the districts, which collectively serve more than 1 million students in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland, meet regularly to share and learn from each other, and the coalition has raised millions of dollars in private foundation funding to support its efforts.

Taking the lead

County offices of education across the state are designing all manner of support services to introduce their local school districts and members of the public to the Common Core and to provide professional development, curricular aids and materials, and specialized training for teachers and administrators who are spearheading implementation in the field.

Charlene Stringham, charged with supervising student support and academic services for the Tulare County Office of Education, works with a team of 16 consultants that is helping the county’s 46 districts prepare for the Common Core. She says her office staff began “immersing” themselves in all things Common Core in August 2010—studying the standards document, developing an understanding of the authors’ intent, attending California and national conferences, and following the work of states like New York and Georgia that were early adopters of the new standards.

“Some LEAs will be tempted to put their heads down and say, ‘This, too, shall pass,’” she says. “In response, we refer to the ‘promise’ of the Common Core and emphasize that we have to embrace it, and get it right.”

To help, Stringham’s office offers two-day academies that are open to all comers. The office also maintains a database of resources, lesson plans and classroom activities that stress analytical and critical thinking, and it’s training teachers to incorporate project-based learning and fundamentals of cutting-edge instructional and curriculum programs into their lessons.

Stringham says her team of consultants maintains a “grueling” schedule of visits to the field—both to introduce the Common Core concepts to districts that are just starting to roll them out to the public and school staff, and to lend more specialized assistance to those LEAs that are farther along.

“Our advice is to make your plan public and closely work with your local board every step of the way,” she says.

‘Heavy lifting’

Placer Union High School District Superintendent Dave Horsey is fully aware of the dimensions of the shift in teaching and learning that will be required by the Common Core. “There is some heavy lifting required,” he says, “and it can certainly feel daunting.”

He and other district administrators have received vital direction from their school board, which established three instructional goals for the year—two of them related specifically to the Common Core. “Our board doesn’t micromanage, but board members have participated in some of the professional development. They want to know what’s going on,” Horsey says.

The district devised a four-year implementation plan, worked with leaders at neighboring districts and feeder schools, and is focusing on professional development. Horsey says he’s seen a marked expansion of resources on CDE’s website in the past six months, but he wishes the state had done more earlier to help districts train teachers and upgrade computer capacity.

“Heck, in a year and a half, we’ll be tested on it,” he notes.

The district is spending more than it takes in, so resources are a constant worry. “We’re weathering our shortfalls by dipping into reserves,” he says. “The board has specified that we spend a set percentage of the budget for staff development. The money for professional development may run out in a few years, but we can’t stop now.”

Despite these concerns, Horsey is very enthusiastic about the promise of the new standards.

“Actually, I’m excited,” he says. “I’ve been at this for 36 years. We’re finally moving toward teaching the skills that students will need in the global economy. The world’s not flat anymore. We’ve been given this chance. What are we going to do about it?”

Some governing boards have taken the lead in directing teachers and administrators to implement the Common Core. Chula Vista Elementary School District has made professional development for teachers and administrators a priority.

“Part of our whole philosophy is to be proactive rather than reactive,” says Glendora Tremper, a board member in the district, which has 44 schools and 28,500 students, 35 percent of whom are English learners. “We decided we needed to have a vision and plan for what’s ahead, rather than waiting until something hits you upside the head. At that point it becomes problematic.”

District leaders have spent the last two years training teachers and principals, offering a combination of professional development opportunities both during the school day and after school. Teacher-led instructional teams receive specialized training and work with colleagues at the school site. “We’re not a top-down district,” Tremper says.

Tremper doesn’t mince words when describing the task. “We’re changing a whole way of thinking,” she says. “It requires a cultural shift.”

John Nelson, assistant superintendent for instructional services, says schools within the district are in varying stages of implementing Common Core. Specific timelines are left to individual school site staff, but all schools will be held accountable for results.

“Some are building awareness, some are in transition and some have partially implemented the standards,” he says. “People are very excited, but it is a daunting task. How do you shift a whole school district without additional dollars?

The district financed some professional development by redirecting federal Title II and III funds earmarked for teacher training and special assistance to students learning English.

“We can be creative about how we use existing resources,” Nelson says. “But the biggest issue is time. This all costs time.”

As for Strich, the Encinitas school board member who posed such tough questions at CSBA’s 2012 Annual Education Conference, she, too is getting excited about the Common Core.

“I was feeling better about the Common Core as soon as I left the workshop,” she says. “As a district we’ve been focusing on analytical and critical thinking for quite some time, so we’re really fortunate.  As it turns out, our district is very well positioned to implement these standards.” 

Carol Brydolf ( is a staff writer for California Schools.

Drilling down: Common Core resources

Among a multitude of online resources for the Common Core State Standards in English-language arts and mathematics, these stand out:


Common Core State Standards Initiative |
The official website includes detailed descriptions of the standards for all grade levels in English and math, key points and more.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium |
California is a governing member of the consortium, one of two multistate efforts to develop what the website called “next-generation assessments that accurately measure student progress toward college- and career-readiness. Available resources include a K-12 tab with information for teachers, administrators and others.


CDE Common Core State Standards |
This California Department of Education Web portal details the standards and includes the state’s implementation plan; a local systems implementation plan template; information on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (California is a governing state); and a link to the Resources Listerv for frequent updates. It also has resources directed to teachers, administrators, students and parents and others.

Revised Instructional Materials Frequently Asked Questions |
CDE’s Instructional Materials FAQ Web page has been revised to include legislation that went into effect in January. This site now includes answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding instructional materials, funding, sufficiency, and the Williams settlement.

Common Core State Standards Special Education Resources Web Page |
The Special Education Common Core State Standards Web page offers resources and guidelines on what the CCSS and the new tests will mean for California students in the special education community.

CSBA: ‘Governing to the Core’ |
Three issues of this ongoing series of governance briefs have been published so far: The Common Core; Setting Direction for Common Core; and Acquiring Instructional Materials. They can be found under the Effective Governance heading on CSBA’s Governance Briefs Web page.

Selected LEA websites

Contra Costa County Office of Education |
Documents from the San Francisco Bay Area Common Core State Standards Summit, hosted by the Contra Costa COE late last year, are among the resources on this site.

San Diego COE: Common Core en Español
This Spanish translation of the Common Core State Standards for English-language arts is a joint project of the San Diego COE, the Council of Chief State School Officers and CDE.

Stanislaus County Office of Education |
This site includes a link to the California County Superintendents Educational Service Association’s 2011 guide for parents of K-8th graders, Estándares Comunes de California para Kindergarten a Octavo Grado Manual Para Padres de Familia.

Tulare County Office of Education |
Tulare’s Common Core Connect includes “a searchable site of more than 600 K-12 common core-related multimedia resources,” according to the website. There’s also a Sample Action Plan for Implementation of the CCSS and information on professional development trainings offered by TCOE.

Santa Ana Unified School District |
Santa Ana invites districts in California and throughout the nation to access their Common Core State Standards web site. The goal is to assist other districts in accelerating the implementation of the Common Core and form lasting, collaborative partnerships.