Common Core a step forward

June 7, 2013 

By STEVEN E. GOMES

When I began teaching at Merced High School in 1972, there were no course

standards. My teaching assignment consisted of ninth- and 10th-grade level classes and I was given two textbooks to use for instruction -- one for each grade level and was wished good luck.

Many teachers used curriculum guides based on the classroom textbook. Those guides combined an outline of the textbook and teaching activities. Often these curriculum guides were in binders and usually found their way to a bottom file drawer.

Yet, teachers worked tirelessly every day to deliver their instruction to ensure every student was learning. Course content not only varied across districts but also varied between schools in the same district.

I remember talking with one of my 11th-grade students the first day of class, and he seemed very frustrated. When I asked him what was causing his angst, he said he had just attended his English III class and the teacher told him that studying Shakespeare would be part of the class. While I am sure the teacher liked Shakespeare, 11th grade is for American literature.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and California's Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 ushered in an era of accountability unparalleled in educational history and eliminated a K-12 teacher's latitude to have full control of course content.

These laws forced the educational system in California, along with other states, to create their own set of standards and benchmarks so that teachers had consistent goals and guidelines to follow.

Using state measurements, student academic achievement has improved during the past 10 years. However, the private sector was telling the education system that students lacked the creativity and problem-solving skills needed in today's work force.

In order for students to perform well on state-mandated tests, students did more applying, understanding and identification of content. These are considered lower thinking skills.

To compete in a global economy, students needed to develop higher level thinking skills such as creating, evaluating and analyzing.

In P-12 education, we are preparing students for jobs in industries that do not exist today. With increasing access to technology, students have access to all the information in the world. Teachers are no longer the bearer of information; rather, teachers must become facilitators of learning.

When I studied American history in high school, the teacher may have assigned the class to write a report on one of the battles in the American Civil War. I would have gone to the encyclopedia and looked up the battle then wrote the report. It would have taken two or three days.

Today, students can accomplish that assignment in 10 minutes using a computer and the Internet.

The assignment under Common Core would be working in groups of three to four; select two battles and identify the similarities and differences between them. Using that information, speculate how the outcome of the war would have been affected if the losing side had won the battle. Additionally, write a speech the commanding general might use to address his troops before one of the battles.

Traditionally, this type of assignment would be at the end of the unit on the American Civil War. Today, this type of assignment is given as the introduction to the American Civil War.

In essence, the Common Core State Standards are designed to allow students to use higher level thinking skills. The standards are a part of a larger initiative, led by states, to raise the bar to ensure students are prepared for college and career.

To date, 46 states and the District of Columbia are working to implement these standards and develop assessments that will be consistent across states.

The course work is designed explicitly so students are college- and career-ready in reading, writing, speaking and listening across all disciplines, including mathematics.

With this mandate, the Common Core focus is on the most basic skills of literacy that constitute being literate with narrative and informational text in every subject area.

That means that by the time students leave high school they will have mastered the literacy skills they need to go forward, in their own time and in their own way, to a college or career path of their choosing.

If school districts embrace Common Core standards as transformational then we are on the cusp of creating a creative and talented group of students. I am pleased to report that Merced County's 20 school districts are viewing the standards as transformational.

Steven E. Gomes is the Merced County superintendent of schools.

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