July 8, 2012

There is a lot of hype these days about the common core standards. On May 31, I attended a panel discussion hosted by Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. The event was called “Investing in Families and Schools,” and all I knew initially was that it would be on implementing the common core standards. I left the event feeling surprised, confused, annoyed, and entertained. This was such a mix of emotions that I decided to write about it.

The panelists included SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza; Norman Yee & Rachel Norton, President & Vice President of San Francisco Board of Education; Dennis Kelly, President of United Educators of San Francisco; and Terry Bergeson, Executive Director of San Francisco School Alliance. The premise of the event was to encourage partnership between the different organizations represented by the panelists and between the greater San Francisco community. The event consisted of Emanu-El members, there to represent concerned families, asking the panelists for partnership, a plan of action for implementing common core, and accountability. It went like this:

Emanu-El member #1: Will you publish by August 20 the plan for implementing the common core state standards?

Richard Carranza: We have to ask, “How does the common core address English language learners?” It costs $5.5 million per year to do professional development around common core, to help students with disabilities, and to provide support for teachers and administrators. In California we’ve been struggling just to keep the lights on and keep students in classrooms. As a community, we need to have a conversation about how to work together to bridge that gap. We have to ask ourselves, “Do we believe in public education?”

Emanu-El member #1: Will you commit to quarterly community report-backs, the next being in the Fall 2012 community meeting?

Richard Carranza: Yes, we will commit, as public servants. School board meetings. Regular briefings. San Francisco remains one of the highest performing public school systems in California.

Emanu-El member #2: Will you commit to the two following activities: 1) Agendize the implementation of the CCSS, and 2) ask the district to communicate a plan for professional development that addresses the common core and identifies the funding gap needed to support the plan?

Norman Yee & Rachel Norton: It’s unfair for our teachers to get dumped on all the time with new curricula. Lots of mandates but no funding. It’s difficult to implement new professional development all the time.

Emanu-El member #3: Will you commit to working with your executive committee to pass a UESF resolution in support of CCSS and the district’s work to align with them? Will you commit to participating in the quarterly community report-backs with Superintendent Carranza and to bringing a team of SFUSD teachers who can share their experience with SFUSD’S process of aligning with the CCST?

Dennis Kelly: There is enough money for eighteen hours of professional development for every teacher in the district. But the district swept it away, used it for deficit. They want to do that again this year. Reforms won’t move education. We need to define the essential content and skills that students need to know. Teacher training, assessments that students will take seriously. We need to build on teacher expertise. Teachers are doing well now, so professional development should simply be something that helps move teachers in the right direction. Assessments should be in line with what teachers teach. I would love to tell you that the union is happy to work with the school district, but it’s not because of the disrespect that the district gives to teachers. I’m astounded with the things the district is willing to throw at them. We hope mediation works, but right now the teachers aren’t willing to work with the district. We’ve never been shown any district plan. No district display of what they want to do around common core. There’s friendly lip service, good hearts, and good intentions, but when it actually comes to feet on the ground and actual work on it, we haven’t seen it. That kind of progress is made when there is a sense of respect. Not when you’re stymied by the kinds of proposals you’re seeing from the school district. You deserve a dose of reality. If the district actually plans this, we’d love to see it. In Cleveland, they brought every teacher out to learn about what the common core was. We look forward to that kind of a plan and we will certainly support that kind of a plan.

Emanu-El member #4: Will you commit to helping raise the 5.5 million needed to close the funding gap, and make sure every school receives the professional development, family engagement and transition support required to align to the CCSS? Will you commit to holding SFUSD accountable for reporting updated expenses and funding needs over the implementation period?

Terry Bergeson: Yes. I was the state superintendent in Washington for 12 years. The children are going to pay the price if we don’t rise above it. We have a $3 million grant to work on the mathematics CCSS. The $5.5 million is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what it would take to transform into a coherent curriculum and give teachers the tools to implement it. We want the district to be accountable for better outcomes for children. We can’t be jamming the district into deals that don’t make sense. We need more money. We have to build the trust of the community.

My take:
First of all, the event did not address what exactly the “common core” is. Many people in the audience had only a vague understanding of common core; several asked me after the event for a definition. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released just two years ago after realizing the United States’ shockingly low 2009 PISA test scores in relation to other OECD countries. The mission statement on the official website says, “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Second of all, while it is great that the United States has developed a common threshold for student knowledge, the focus should not be on implementing CCSS, but on equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need. Now the education community has assigned the name “common core” to this task, and suddenly this becomes the center of everyone’s attention. But we can’t forget our real mission by focusing all our attention on what it takes to get there. CCSS is a means to an end, not the end in itself.

Third and lastly, the way in which the Emanu-El members posed their questions gave the impression that the common core standards are not being implemented now. In fact, in many classrooms, they are being implemented and have been for years and years. The difference is, as I said in the last paragraph, that now there’s a name to them. As an example, one eighth grade mathematics standard is “Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions. For example, 32 × 3-5 = 3-3 = 1/33 = 1/27.” These properties of exponents most certainly were taught before CCSS came into existence. Some teachers not only teach everything outlined in common core, but go above and beyond these standards with their students. So let’s get the terminology right: The Common Core State Standards do not need to be implemented; they need to be attained for all students.

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