California’s Common Core State Standards: An Overview for Parents

What is the Common Core?

The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a national set of educational standards adopted by 48 states that represent the work of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in collaboration with educators across the country. The CCSS have clear focus on what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in college, careers and beyond. The CCSS call for a change in what and how we teach students to better prepare them for the demands of the global economy. The state of California adopted California’s Common Core Standards (CCCS) in August of 2010.


 Why do we need new standards?

So why do we need a new national set of education standards? The traditional way we taught students in the past simply isn’t in alignment with the demands of college and careers today and in the future. The role of student as empty vessel and teacher as holder and giver of knowledge are antiquated. Common national standards and assessment will provide students learning goals that will be more consistent state by state and give us a clearer picture of how the U.S. performs internationally. Our school and schools throughout the country are working to improve teaching and learning so all children will graduate high school with the 21st century skills they need to be successful.  According to CEOs interviewed, the following skills were most sought after in potential employees:


  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination


The Common Core aims to “upgrade” the current way we teach content knowledge in English, Math, Science and Social Sciences by requiring more applied skills and independent learning. Students will need strong writing skills and be required to work in teams to collaborate to solve problems. Students will need to be able to make arguments and back up what they say with lots of evidence. They will need to be independent thinkers and learners. To make the Common Core live in classrooms, many changes will need to be made.


Changes in English Language Arts

In English Language Arts and literacy there are several changes that teachers and parents will need to consider. Students will, in addition to stories and literature, be required to read more non-fiction to learn important facts and background knowledge in history, art and science. They will need to read more challenging texts more closely and will be asked the kinds of questions where they will need to reflect on and analyze what they have read to find answers. Students will need to not only find the main idea or arguments presented in what they read but make arguments and provide evidence drawing from multiple viewpoints to support their ideas.


Changes in Mathematics

Like English Language Arts, the new Math standards focus on the application of “real world” math including problem-solving skills. The new math standards require students to develop a more solid foundation as they progress through the grades by going deeper with the concepts they will use as the math gets harder. The new standards are more connected and extend and build on previous learning.  In other words, we are trying to move away from only studying one math topic at a time, say for instance, fractions or algebra, to studying what math students need to solve the problem and how many ways can they solve the problem. The Math standards now point out the importance of teaching both Mathematical Content and Mathematical Practices such as problem solving, reasoning, argument and critique, using math tools and modeling.


Changes in how students are tested

Perhaps the biggest change is how students will be assessed. The current assessment system, STAR, will sunset (yay!) and new assessments will be administered in the 2014-15 school year.  The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is in charge of developing the new tests called performance tasks. Performance tasks ask students to demonstrate their knowledge. The tests will have less multiple choice and more variable option test items and much more writing will be required. The assessment will be on a computer and will adapt to students’ level of proficiency. The benefit of the assessment is it can give teachers and parents good information about what are strong areas and areas for growths for students. A performance task might ask students to use math to design a community garden or to argue for or against uniforms in schools.


So is this a good thing?

Establishing common education standards is one way we can work to address the disparity between individual state standards to ensure that all children, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status, or life history, receive an education that values their potential.

Common standards are good for students because:

  • They help prepare students with the background knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers.
  • They help make transitions smoother for students moving to different states or districts because the learning goals remain consistent.
  • Clearer standards help students understand what is expected of them and allow them to engage in more self-directed learning.

Common standards are good for parents because:

  • They help parents understand exactly what students need to know and be able to do at each step in their education.
  • They help facilitate conversation between parents and teachers about how to help their children reach those education goals.
  • They assure parents that their children have access to the same high-quality education other students receive in other parts of the country.

Common standards are good for teachers because:

  • They allow for more focused professional development and promote collaboration.
  • They can inform the development of a curriculum that promotes deep understanding for all children.
  • They can give educators more time to focus on depth of understanding and richer units of study rather than focusing on “coverage” and “fitting everything in.”

The standards are research- and evidence-based and clearly articulate expectations to parents, teachers, and the general public about what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school and at graduation from high school. The National PTA has announced its support of the initiative.

Student success is the result of the collaborative work of educators, parents, policymakers, and the broader community to better understand what students need to build a promising future. The Common Core State Standards are an opportunity to strengthen this collaboration. For more information, please visit and

As one senior executive from Dell said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.” The Common Core Standards provides educators a roadmap more aligned to college and career readiness and are a potential strategy to solve tomorrow’s problems.


6 Strategies for parents to encourage creativity and critical thinking skills:

1.  Try to build in choice and flexibility – observe your child’s interests and offer a range of reading. Is my child in to fiction, graphic novels, or non-fiction? Reading should not be a chore.
2.  Read to your child often to model for them.

3.  Answer questions with questions whenever possible. Ask your child what they think the answer could be. Help them use reason and use the process of elimination.

4.  For the reluctant reader, ask them to replace the name of an animal or character in a story with a familiar name from your child’s life, a pet or friend will do.

5.  Use math to solve problems and calculate. Point out practical applications while shopping using money. Play games with your child. Encourage them to build and count and compare. Find numbers and patterns in everyday life!

6. Find out what motivates your child and help them develop curiosity by deeply exploring a topic. Don’t worry if all they want to read about is cats for a couple of months or if they tire of a subject and move on. Find the zone that’s right for your child.

Linked Learning: A Critical Pathway for Transitioning to the Common Core

The following article appeared in WCCUSD’s June Monthly Common Core Reporter newsletter and describes the Common Core and Linked Learning connection as well as describes some of the great work I have had the honor to be a part of.

Before the common standards were written, Linked Learning was taking hold as an innovative strategy for high school reform in California through the California Linked Learning District Initiative. This initiative supports nine districts, including WCCUSD, to develop systems of high-quality, career-themed pathways that prepare students to be college and career ready at high school graduation. In Linked Learning classrooms students can be seen engaging in collaborative and complex outcome-based integrated projects with authentic industry themes.

Linked Learning pathways have four main components:

  1. College-prep academic core that emphasizes real world application
  2. Technical core of four or more courses that meet industry standards
  3. Work-based learning
  4. Student supports including academic and social and emotional support and college and career guidance counseling

WCCUSD’s is proud to support 22 Linked Learning pathway programs including 19 California Partnership Academies (CPA) at the high school level. All 6 of WCCUSD’s high schools house at least one CPA with industry themes such as Health, Engineering, Multi-Media, Creative, Visual and Performing Arts, Tourism and Hospitality, Information Technology and Law and Justice.

When WCCUSD Pathway teachers were introduced to the ELA Common Core Standards during last summer’s WCCUSD Linked Learning Summer Institute, they knew right away that they were in the driver’s seat already! Linked Learning and Common Core are complimentary. Given their shared emphasis on real-world applications of knowledge and skills, linked learning is the ideal “how” to the “what” of the Common Core. Central to both the Common Core and Linked Learning is the belief that students experience deep learning when they have multiple opportunities to apply content and higher order analysis skills while solving real world problems. The collaborative structure of pathway teams lends itself to Common Core implementation and the Common Core focus on performance tasks is something pathway teachers have been engaged in for quite some time.  Pathway teachers were excited to align their existing outcomes, rubrics and integrated projects to the Common Core and to utilize the Core for their planning moving forward. It was also clear to teachers that even as strong as the Linked Learning connections to Common Core are, we have work to do to ensure that all WCCUSD students are college and career ready as seniors.

As we have been learning during our Awareness Phase, the ELA Common Core requires shifts in how we do business.

Big Shifts of ELA Common Core:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language

In addition to the big shifts overall, teachers who are not English teachers learned that the new framework now includes reading and writing standards, Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. This emphasis on a shared responsibility for literacy is again a natural fit for for Linked Learning interdisciplinary teams but requires teachers to build their instructional muscles in new ways to meet the heavy lift of the ELA Common Core. But where to start?

David Conley wrote in his book, College Knowledge,  “If we could institute only one change to make students more college ready, it should be to increase the amount and quality of writing students are expected to produce.”  Heeding Conley’s advice combined with the standards’ special emphasis on student’s ability to write sound arguments, Linked Learning professional development supported teachers to critically engage with the key features of and instructional shifts of the ELA Common Core while going deep with Writing Standard 1: write arguments to support claims. Our “adopt a standard” approach became a consistent strand for our professional development throughout the school year building on the work from the summer.

Initially teacher teams revised Integrated Projects to align more closely with Common Core by rewriting or creating new performance tasks using a Common Core aligned template.

As the school year progressed teachers re-thought warm ups to include more argumentative writing and generally required writing more frequently with more analysis required. Later in the year, teachers analyzed student work with colleagues to identify patterns for instruction and aligned instructional strategies to address what they saw.

The culminating event that showcased the fruits of our labor was the WCCUSD Linked Learning May Exhibition and Residency where leaders from other Linked Learning Districts came to see what we have been up to. We saw a Law academy leveraging summary writing as a prerequisite for argumentation, a Health Academy student articulately describing the argumentative essays he had written in preparation for college, Information Technology students read tech articles and expressed their opinions about the latest trends. The results were impressive.

WCCUSD’s commitment to Linked Learning will take us a long way on our long road to full Common Core implementation at the high school level. Linked Learning’s authentic, industry aligned practices are what our students need to be college and career ready in the 21st century. With a strong commitment to a shared responsibility for literacy and ongoing professional development, we are in a good place to continue to learn, grow, and help students succeed.

Getting Out of Students’ Way!

Instead of thinking that I am “The Teacher” – the knowledge giver who stands in front in total control-instead of that traditional pedagogy, we need a 21st century vision of teaching, where there is less teacher talk, where what I’m doing is thinking about how I am going to pull the most out of these kids; how I’m going to enable these students to be empowered; how I can make sure that I create a classroom that’s free from threat and stress, where they will be willing to take risks.

– Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, The Connected Educator

So how do we get out of our students’ way so they can become independent learners? It is hard to stop being the sage on the stage. Often it is about giving up control and tolerating the noisy, messy sounds of learning. As an educator my ongoing reflections on my own instruction always lead me to “stop talking so much, you lost them.” So being more of a coach and a cheerleader and less of a pontficator is the work of teaching these days. Tending to the delicate balance of crystal clear directions, engagement structures and  routines with the chaos is the work.

If we can help develop in our students:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Ability to Access and Analyze Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Then, we have done our jobs. When they don’t need us, then we can claim success!

May 2013 be the year of the teacher as coach and student as independent learner!

Happy New Year

Lab Classrooms: Going Beyond Drive-By Professional Development

Just like scientists, educators need to rely on hypotheses, experiments and data results to make informed instructional decisions. All too often this work is conducted far from the every day teacher’s classroom.

Sustainable professional development must go beyond the fantastic workshops that excite teachers yet when they return to their classrooms, the learning seems to invariably end up staying on the shelf. Sustainable professional development needs to focus on building leadership capacity at the site level and provide a structure that enables teachers to reflect on and share their new knowledge. To be most effective, professional development must be job-embedded—specific to teacher needs—and presented in supportive, nonthreatening ways. Teachers need learning structures that are empowering and allow them to collaborate with colleagues.

A lab classroom model where teachers can see how things work in an authentic setting will support teachers to put new learning into action.  So how does a lab classroom work? A host teacher works with a facilitator to implement an agreed upon instructional model or new framework, for instance, the new Common Core State Standards. Formative assessment and classroom practices are closely monitored and documented. Data is shared with school site teams and guest teachers are invited to observe the class to see practice in action over time.

In a lab classroom model, an experienced facilitator supports teachers and students through collaborative teaching, lesson modeling, assessment administration, and intervention services. Principals also get support to be instructional leaders, observing teachers, conducting walk-throughs, conferencing with students, and working with groups of teachers during collaborative planning sessions.

The practices developed and honed in the lab classroom are then adapted in other classrooms on site developing the sites capacity to implement new learning sustainably. Schools can team up with other lab classrooms in the district to compare data and problem-solve response to intervention practices.

It’s time for research to live in the classroom and not in books and workshops. When teachers see first hand how a strategy works in their class, with their kids, they are much more likely to internalize instructional changes. Teachers pine for authentic learning just like their students do. Lab classrooms can go a long way to ensuring more authentic learning for teachers and their students.

Will the Common Core State Standards Kill Stories?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks students to read fewer stories and read more expository text with a goal of developing their analytical skills through formulating arguments. The CCSS calls for a 50/50 narrative/expository split in early grades and moves to a 30/70 split in later grades. Many educators are worried that this kind of move will deprive students, especially poor students, of the power and legacy of the story. But are these mutually exclusive? Can’t we ramp up student engagement with expository text and critical discourse while still keeping stories alive? I wonder why the conversation seems to be an either or. Isn’t it a both?  The focus on expository and the art of argument is not so much a usurper of the narrative but a response to the reality that students face with college and career expectations. I know a lot of us teachers want to share our love of stories, our passion for the narratives that shaped us, and our life’s work with our students. But let’s be real. How many of our students will go on to be English majors? The narrative has a role in helping students learn about their own lives and the lives of others, but there is so much more out there. As a long-time high school teacher, I found that my students came to me as ninth graders with an intimate knowledge of narrative structures. They can write endlessly about their lives. They really know about stories – beginning, middle and end. However, when I ask my students what research they have done or how many news articles they have read: sadly I hear crickets.  We must utilize a balanced approach to early literacy that uses both narrative and expository texts and related tasks to develop students’ critical thinking skills and build on this foundation as students progress through the grades. When CEOs are asked what they look for, consistently they say they want critical thinkers who have strong writing and presentation skills, and are team players. They need to be able to advocate. New content can always be taught to those who have solid background knowledge and are confident in a variety of academic structures. So will the Common Core State Standards kill stories? Well they may kill some of them but in the end, a balanced approach to stories is what students, especially poor students, need to compete.


Access for All: Using a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Implement the Common Core

During workshops that aim to develop awareness of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers. My students are already behind with the current standards so how will they handle the new, more rigorous standards? This is a valid concern. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the intellectual muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship.


The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to tackle what I call the dependency cycle by ensuring that students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. But how will we do this? What are the implications for implementing the CCSS? Publishers and professional development providers are in frenzy as they answer the CCSS call. I recently previewed a major publisher’s CCSS ELA textbook for high school. The thing was so massive that I could barely lift it. Supposedly it will be offered in (2) books so students can actually transport it. But is more really the answer? Will just giving students more to read and more activities to respond to in the textbook address the college and career readiness goals set by the CCSS?


If we are really going to implement the CCSS and tend to depth over breadth, we need to do things differently. Really differently. Universal Design for Learning, based on concepts of providing equal access to persons with disabilities, has a great potential to guide us as we implement the CCSS. Universal Design for Learning asks us to accommodate learning differences by planning in advance and making instruction available for more students, at lower costs, and reduce the need for after-the-fact steps such as intensive interventions and referrals to special education. The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are developing technology-assisted assessments for the CCSS that are informed by the principles of universal design. The principles of universal design require making curricula, materials, and environments accessible to and usable by all students in the building – from our struggling learners, to our highest performers. As educators, we need to craft new ways to make education more convenient for time-pressed students, more comfortable for people from diverse backgrounds, and more flexible for persons with different learning styles.


So what does this look like? One way to look at this is through the lens of Response to Intervention (RTI) inquiry. If we have systems in place where we know students well through data, have systems in place to collaborate about how to address what we learn from data and access to materials that support our plans, we can be better positioned to engage students in the kind of work that CCSS asks us to do. Some students may need to hear a text aloud; some students may need extra language support, while some students may need a graphic to help them learn. All students need to learn how to organize content so they can learn content. We also need to become more culturally competent so we can capitalize on students’ diverse backgrounds to help motivate and sustain students in scholarship and help them find intrinsic motivation for learning. Classrooms need to be noisier with less teacher talk and more co-construction of knowledge with students. We need to move away from our current, antiquated education delivery model that has not kept up with the times and clearly is not working for large percent of our students as seen in the ever present achievement gap and declining graduation rates. We need to invite all students to the table of scholarship and figure out how to keep them there.

Common Core State Standards Initiative: Stealth Federal Takeover or Movement Towards Consistency and Coherence?

There has been a lot of chatter about the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Many educators have expressed everything from “finally!” to “here we go again.” The latest bit of criticism of the CCSS is centered on the notion that adopting national common standards will be a threat to state’s autonomy and has sparked fears of a federal takeover that will stymy local innovation. Education chief Arne Duncan’s staunch support of the CCSS has intensified this fear and some states, including South Carolina and Utah have even taken steps to revisit their decision to adopt the new standards.

It is fascinating how the CCSS has now become part of the political issue of state’s constitutional rights. The CCSS will have a common assessment and is being supported by the current federal administration especially in the context of Race to the Top. Adopting the CCSS looks good on the application. But do the CCSS reek of nationalization of curriculum? My understanding after digging into the standards is that the CCSS are not a curriculum but a set of learning expectations that act as guidelines for curriculum implementation. Yes, states will have to sacrifice or change some of their previous standards. Yes, change is hard. But CCSS as federal education takeover? Really? Have we all forgotten the wide reaching effects of previous national movements like No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? NCLB has been dictating how we do education for over 10 years! It turned us all into bean counters as we waited with baited breath for our test scores and graduation rates to see if we made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). We had those moments of, yikes, our graduation rate dipped by 3% even though all of our other numbers have increased so we won’t make our AYP. Again. Program Improvement status became an under-performing sentence with seemingly no way out. I remember being at a conference with NCLB folks and asked them, “What happens in Program Improvement Year 5?” They didn’t have an answer. Still don’t.

At the end of the day, doesn’t the benefit students will receive from experiencing coherent, consistent standards that are aligned to the demands of college and career and the global economy outweigh any perceived threat to state’s autonomy in educational decision making? Is the autonomy that states covet even real? More of a concern and worthy of our energy is how the CCSS will get implemented and what role the ever-present influence of test makers and textbook publishers will have. Textbook adoptions and testing are wildly expensive and resources are scarce. No curriculum or set of standards will ever please all. However, we do know that consistency and alignment with 21st century expectations are an improvement on our antiquated system and the CCSS are a good step in this direction.

I dream of a time when knowledge is free and how we ask students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do will be an authentic experience that actually monitors their progress and informs our instruction. Go figure?

Onwards and sideways,