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Teachers defend Common Core but many parents still unsure


November 01, 2013
The Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District held two information meetings last week to further explain the transition to the new Common Core state standards. Teachers from a wide range of grade levels spoke favorably of the new standards, but many parents remain concerned.

This year is the transition year to the Common Core which will be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year. Mary Gorsuch, assistant superintendent of the district, spoke at the Oct. 30 meeting on the reasoning behind the transition.

"One big reason is the disconnect between high school graduation requirements and college freshmen entrance experience," said Gorsuch. "What we found in 2012 in California is that 64 percent of the college freshmen required remedial courses in either English or Math or both."

Gorsuch then gave a presentation of the new standards, all of which is available on the front page of the district's website at www.vcpusd.k12.ca.us. Some of the changes include students reading more non-fiction and informative texts, an increased emphasis on technology, a more comprehensive approach to mathematics, and the new Smarter Balanced assessments.

One of the most universal concerns was how students in the later grades would suddenly have to adjust to different standards than they had been used to in their academic careers so far.

"Wouldn't it make more sense that we start it in the lower grades, advancing children up through it until they're all on the same sheet of music all the way through?," said Jay West. Whether or not the standards are an improvement, West and other parents were concerned that the transition will be rough on students in the middle of the academic ladder. "We don't want our children to be experiments," he said.

However, several teachers suggested Common Core hasn't dramatically changed their classrooms.

"This is fundamentally the same as what we've been doing with some minor tweaks," said Kami Callahan, kindergarten teacher. Callahan said the curriculum is more or less the same, except with new ways to challenge the students to think more critically and collaboratively.

Evette Striblen, 7th and 8th grade teacher at VC Middle School, held a similar opinion.

"The Common Core has simply taken the instructional strategies that I have found very powerful, that my colleagues and I have worked on over the years and found powerful with our students and successful with our students, and simply enhanced them."

Yet, many parents were especially concerned about the changes to the math curriculum, with multiple reports of their students being frustrated with it being more difficult. Trina West and Donna Santana both raised the point that students raised on the old standards will suffer as the curriculum changes.

"Our kids that took Algebra I that are now in Geometry and that are going to take Algebra II next year, where do they get that piece?" asked Santana.

Lee Thor, chair of the math department at VCHS, admitted of the Common Core, "it is rigorous, it is hard." However, she felt that the transition would ultimately be for the better.

"There's an increased emphasis on the understanding to go along with the procedural fluency, and that's the part that had been missing before," said Thor. Based on her experience facing real-world applications as a technician and systems engineers, Thor sees Common Core as a way to get students more involved and excited about math.

Another concern raised by several parents was that Common Core would mean more government oversight and collection of student data.

"I'm not against what's being taught, what I'm against is the federal takeover of the data that will be collected on your children," said Joanne Tolman. Although Gorsuch insisted the state is prohibited from sending student testing data to the federal government or any private entity, Tolman and other parents are still wary of the possibility.

The emphasis on 21st century technological skills is a major part of Common Core, but some parents were concerned that it would mean students would no longer be writing and taking notes by hand. Teachers assured them that hand-written work was still a major part of the curriculum, but that students may be drafting essays and other work on their iPads.

Lou Obermeyer, superintendent, said that the textbooks were still the same under Common Core, and if there is a new textbook adoption, parents would have the opportunity to review the new materials.

Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will be field testing the Smarter Balanced assessments this year. The new "computer-adaptive" assessments will replace the STAR testing of previous years and are designed with the Common Core standards in mind. Sample assessments are available at their website for parents to take and get a better idea of how their students are being tested: www.smarterbalanced.org.

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