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Coffee Break: Understanding Common Core

Laguna Beach Unified School District Supt. Sherine Smith and other leaders from the district convened at Coffee Break's kickoff meeting Wednesday to discuss implementation of the newly adopted Common Core State Standards.

Part of a nationwide, state-driven initiative to update and standardize the curriculum for math and English in the 21st century, these standards shift the emphasis from memorization of content to a more fluid thinking style that integrates language and math across all disciplines.

The district's implementation of these standards spans three years, This is the second year of pilot-testing for teachers, who are receiving much support from their professional learning communities and other district initiatives. Full implementation is targeted for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Ron LaMotte, principal of Top of the World Elementary School, assured people that despite the buzz, these standards are "not that different." For example, the writing standards are designed to go beyond traditional literature analysis and train children to use different source materials and cite specific examples from each.

Chris Duddy, principal of El Morro Elementary, discussed the role assessments would play in the new standards. First, a "benchmark" assessment is given to gauge where kids are in terms of literacy or math fluency. As teaching units progress, "formative" assessments are given to provide feedback for teachers on how well students have mastered a particular concept.

Finally, "summative" assessments are given to see what students have mastered in total. It's Important to note that not all assessments are used for grading. Rather they are intended to provide guidance for teachers.

Importantly, historic STAR testing is currently in review at the state Legislature level. Obviously, the new curriculum wouldn't align with what STAR historically measures, so a drop in the scores is to be expected. This could become controversial in our district, which has been riding an upward trend in STAR scores across the board.

Replacing STAR, new, improved standardized tests are being developed to operate in tandem with the new standards. For example, Smarter Balanced Assessment is an online test that has open-ended questions instead of multiple choice. It uses a new, iterative process that interacts with a student's responses to measure individual learning more effectively. Smith assured parents that students will be trained to comprehend this new testing style. (Practice tests may be viewed at http://www.smarterbalanced.org.)

Jenny Salberg reviewed some of the professional support available to teachers as these new standards roll out. For two years, professional developments have included Summer Academy Common Core and an intensive one-week program for principals in Irvine.

Professional Learning Communities continue to function as support for teachers, and Common Core site leaders are designated at each school. At Thurston Middle School, Monday Core Groups develop cross-curricular projects where, for example, math teachers work to integrate mathematical concepts like longitude and latitude into the social studies materials.

High School Principal Joanne Culverhouse reported that "teachers are excited" and students "are getting passionate" in debates stimulated by Common Core's more multifaceted approach to a topic.

For example, instead of studying "Native American myths" in language arts, kids read a historic letter about Chief Seattle that inspired the creation of a children's book. They then read a New York Times article that refutes the letter and shows that the children's book is based on false information. Kids go much deeper into content and learn about the importance of examining source material when analyzing content.

While there appears to be much excitement about the new Common Core standards, there is also a sense of not comprehending exactly what will change, from content to teaching style to assessment. Also, there are unanswered questions about how it will affect our children in terms of their performance on the SAT and ACT. (Parents can go to http://www.OCDE.us for specific detail on curriculum changes.)

During this time of transition to the new Common Core State Standards, parents will continue to look to LBUSD leaders to keep parents updated, understanding that this is the academic year for exploring the new curriculum.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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