Common Core standards put focus back on critical thinking
In Julie Shankle’s English class at North High in Torrance, the Macbeth unit is no longer just the study of a 17th century play about a man who commits murder in a bid to become king and maintain power.
Now, her 12th-grade lesson has an added element: Students must mine data to produce an essay based on the prompt, “Is killing ever justified?” This means making a compelling case and citing credible sources — perhaps a news article on euthanasia, or a TED Talks video of a professor expounding on the death penalty.
The adjustment typifies an oncoming sea change in education known as the Common Core standards, which have been gradually creeping into the classroom and are to be fully implemented in California by next fall. The idea is to emphasize real-world relevancy and critical-thinking skills over rote memorization, with an eye toward preparing students for college and jobs.
In some respects, it is a kind of backlash against the culture of testing that has intensified over the past decade.
“I can now say I’ve been in the profession long enough to see things come full circle,” Shankle said. “It’s bringing back the focus on critical thinking that sort of disappeared in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind. Now, we’re trying to blend critical-thinking skills with testing, testing, testing.”
Unlike previous education reforms, Common Core is not a mere tweaking of teaching methodology; it is a sweeping revamp that will touch every K-12 classroom of all 45 states that have adopted the standards.
In devising the standards, the creators started by determining what students needed to know to be successful as freshmen in college, and worked backward, step by step, all the way to kindergarten.
Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of Torrance Unified, said he expects Common Core to underscore an important concept in education: the textbook is not the class. In an age where any fact is but a few keyboard clicks away, students will be required to synthesize information using a variety of sources besides the textbook — including the Internet.
“For history, that will really tie into the use of primary sources,” Stowe said. “For science, it gets into ‘What does the latest research say?’ ”
The changes will be significant, and some are already in effect.
For instance, elementary school students in the South Bay and beyond are already reading more informational texts — about geography, say, or planets — and fewer stories featuring old standbys such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Beezus and Ramona.” The change is in keeping with the Common Core recommendation to split fiction and nonfiction 50/50.
In math, deriving the right answer won’t be good enough; students will be expected to understand the underlying concepts. Middle schoolers may ponder the question, “What is multiplication?” (Answer: repeated addition.) High school students may ask, “What does the word ‘number’ mean?”
In English, a key aim is to improve the ability of students to formulate a well-thought-out, well-written argument.
“I don’t care if they are for or against, or whether it jibes with what I think,” Shankle said. “I care about: ‘Do they have a thesis, do they support the thesis, and do they bring in credible sources.’ ”
Much like the No Child Left Behind Act — which was co-sponsored by President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — Common Core is in theory a bipartisan initiative, endorsed by both the Obama administration and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But in practice, controversy — while slow to materialize nationwide — has been percolating among many conservatives, who believe the movement to be a pretext for a takeover on the part of the federal government. Not unlike what happened with health-care reform, several states have put up resistance. Indiana, for instance, has cut off funding for the initiative. Similar fights have broken out in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
However, the pushback is largely missing in California, even among some of the more conservative districts.
Some say this is because California’s first standards, established in the late 1990s, were among the most ambitious in the nation. The new Common Core is not seen as a radical shift.
“We’re used to the idea of having standards that we have to teach toward,” said Gerardo Loera, who heads the curriculum office of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re not questioning the philosophical ‘why,’ just the practical ‘how.’ ”
To be sure, there are critics in California. Among them is Bill Lama, a Palos Verdes Estates resident who spearheads a grass-roots group that is trying to persuade the school board of the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District to opt out of the Common Core program.
“P.V. has a very good school district,” said Lama, who adds that his group, Concerned PV Parents, has at least 100 members. “The kids graduating from high school go on to the best colleges in the country, then go on to grad school, become professional people and do well. So what is the problem we are trying to fix?”
Kathy Santarosa, a science teacher at Miraleste Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, doesn’t see it that way.
“Are we going to wait until we fall behind everybody else?” she said. “Why not stay ahead? Why not stay at the forefront? That’s where we want to be in P.V.”
Santarosa, who is president of the Palos Verdes Faculty Association, added that Common Core is the product of an industry that, by necessity, is always changing.
“We are always trying to master how to disseminate information to our students,” she said. “How do we get through to our students? How are we connecting their world to the information they need to know? That is truly what Common Core is about.”
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, believes Common Core is viewed by many teachers in California as a breath of fresh air, in part because it is “more realistic and smarter” than the state’s 1997 standards, which are often criticized as a mile wide and an inch deep.
It also recognizes the educator as the expert, he added.
“From our point of view, this is a powerful antidote to the increasingly obtrusive, top down, ‘this is what you have to do’ view of reform,” Vogel said.
At Torrance Unified, teachers are trained by other teachers. One teacher trainer is Jim Evans, who spends half his day working with teachers and the other half in his ninth-grade English classroom at West High School.
On a recent day, he geared his students up for a lesson that would culminate with them writing a letter to the Torrance school board. They started not with a page from a textbook, but a video on YouTube, of a high school student respectfully criticizing the Alhambra school board.
As teacher, Evans’ role was less about telling them what to do than helping them find a focus. Adopting a practice known as the Socratic Method, he posed open-ended questions to the class: What is the purpose of school? What role does online education play? What is right with Torrance schools? What is wrong with Torrance schools?
“We’re moving away from a value on recall, and more toward the skill of synthesizing ideas,” Evans said after the class. “In the old days, I might have done a quiz on your reading last night: ‘Let me catch you on what you didn’t read.’ ”
Now, he said, the class might study how author Ray Bradbury creates suspense, and then might try to emulate his methods in their own narrative writing.
Stowe of Torrance Unified said teachers will be encouraged to spend less time dwelling on details.
“We don’t want English teachers, for example, to go through and grade every punctuation mark and every spelling error,” Stowe said. “When kids get that piece of paper back, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh man, I missed that period. That should have been a comma.’ ”
He added: “Not that it’s not important; it absolutely is. We need to find ways to make sure students are learning those skills, but in the context of this more challenging, higher-level critical thinking work.”
Pat Wingert of The Hechinger Report contributed to this article.