Placer teachers prepare for Common Core standards

Depth of knowledge, critical thinking more important in new instructional methods
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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Teachers in schools across Placer County are preparing themselves and their students for upcoming changes to the standards they teach by.

On Aug. 2, 2010, California adopted the Common Core standards as a new way to align teaching methods and content. Every state, with the exception of Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia and Texas, have adopted the Common Core.

The standards don't have to be fully implemented until 2014, but Renee Regacho-Anaclerio, assistant superintendent of education services with the Placer County Office of Education, said it's important for teachers to start learning about the Common Core now and acclimating their students with the new expectations that come with it.

Jennifer Hicks, director of professional development with the Placer County Office of Education, said in the months of June, July and August alone more than 900 teachers from across Placer County have attended professional development seminars on the Common Core. Phase two of professional development will start later this fall.

"The Common Core has a greater depth of knowledge and we're helping these teachers know what the best ways are to change the levels of rigor associated with their teaching and how to help students to make sure they are increasing their depth of knowledge," Hicks said.

Under the Common Core, there are four levels of describing, explaining and interpreting that play into expanding that depth of knowledge. Susan Spence, a second-grade teacher at Rock Creek Elementary in Auburn, said the biggest difference in the Common Core and initiatives used in the past lies in the shift away from memorizing facts toward applying those facts to solving problems and critical thinking.

"We want students to become problem solvers, not regurgitators of facts, which is kind of where a lot of other countries have given us a run for our money," Spence said. "This is why we're importing engineers from India, because we're good at memorizing, but we really need to become broader thinkers, we have to develop logic and we have to be able to express ourselves."

The first level of knowledge under the Common Core does involve elements of memorization, like learning basic mathematic skills, how to use punctuation marks or label locations on a map. The second level takes those basic skills a step further and applies them to making observations, establishing cause and effect relationships and using context clues to identify portions of a story or unfamiliar words.

Carol Leeds teaches math to seventh- and eighth-graders at E.V. Cain Charter Middle School in Auburn and said the Common Core goes a step beyond by teaching students the basics of math, but allows teachers to go into more detail about certain concepts.

"The Common Core will go way more in depth. Students will do more reasoning, justification, critiquing, analyzing and make our students think way more critically instead of just looking at something like it's a recipe where you do this, this, this and this and you get the right answer," Leeds said. "Now they'll have to think ‘does that answer even make sense and is it logical?'"

The third knowledge level involves developing a student's strategic thinking skills, like using the concepts they've learned to solve non-routine problems or develop logical arguments. The fourth and final level involves extending thinking, like applying a mathematical skill to solving a problem or describing how a common theme extends across the course of a story or text.

Suzanne Scotten, who teaches English and Spanish to eighth-graders at E.V. Cain, said the Common Core brings "more reality into the classroom." She has already started trying to implement the standards into her curriculum as her students read a story titled "Flowers for Algernon" in one of her classes.

The story focuses on a man who is developmentally disabled, so instead of only having her students read the story and answer questions about what happened, Scotten has had students research brain disorders and laws pertaining to people with disabilities.

"In the older days it was about just knowing the information and now it's about knowing what to do with that information," Scotten said.

Another portion of the Common Core involves bridging certain subjects so students can see the connection between some of the topics they're learning about. Brittany Haydon teaches senior English at Placer High School and said the Common Core is a welcome change for English teachers because writing is encouraged across the curriculum.

"There are natural connections for the different subject areas. It could open doors for collaboration between math and science and even English," Haydon said.

By the time the Common Core standards are fully implemented in 2014, students will begin taking assessments based on the standards. Regacho-Anaclerio said those assessments will be different from the STAR exams students take now in that they will be based on the depth of knowledge students gain, but also that the tests will largely be taken online.

Hicks said a company called Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is being used in California and other states to develop the tests. Hicks and Regacho-Anaclerio said the company will have students cycle through testing windows, rather than having all students testing at the same time because not all schools have the technical capabilities to have all students on computers simultaneously.

"It is not an expectation that all students have to be online taking the test at the same time," Regacho-Anaclerio said. "The reality is that we don't remember all the facts, we remember the big concepts, so that's what is important here, how you take those big ideas and how you apply them to the work world, to college, to thinking about integrated subjects."

Contact Amber Marra at Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.