BY TERRY L. WALKER, SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS
The most sweeping educational reform of the nation’s public schools is on its way, and it happens to align nicely with the direction the Irvine Unified School District is already heading.
Set to be implemented over the next two years, the California Common Core standards are part of a national movement that will bring focus and clarity to the work of educators. More to the point, they were thoughtfully crafted to promote understanding at a deeper conceptual level, placing an emphasis on thinking critically and creatively, articulating positions, taking intellectual risks and collaborating effectively.
That’s a pronounced shift from the accountability and assessment movement that began in the 1990s, leading us through an era that was defined as much by its high-stakes tests as it was by a vast curriculum that often feels a mile wide and an inch deep. I am proud to say that our staff and students performed exceptionally well in these years, and our schools posted some of the state’s highest assessment scores. At the same time, we never lost sight of our primary objective, which is to empower students with the skills, knowledge and values necessary to become leaders in the 21st century.
And that’s really what the California Common Core is about. It’s about teaching our students to investigate, collaborate and discover. It’s about solving real-world problems and learning multiple paths to each solution. It’s about cultivating diverse skills and nurturing talents that transcend the capacity of existing technologies. It’s about taking our work with students a step further and substantially deeper, and the IUSD teachers who have given the Common Core an early test-drive have been overwhelmingly in favor as they are directly aligned with our own district-adopted Continuous Improvement Efforts. (We encourage parents, as partners in supporting our students, to review the latter document because it frames our vision for student learning and guides our instructional practices in supporting that vision.)
So what will the Common Core standards look like at your child’s school?
Hands-on activities and collaborative exercises will be much more prevalent, and English courses will see a shift toward nonfiction texts. Media skills will be integrated into everyday lessons, writing will be shared with outside audiences and next-generation assessments will evaluate higher order processes. (More on those assessments in a moment.)
Math classes will teach fewer concepts, but they will reach new depths in exploring those concepts. Students will be challenged with more real-world applications and fewer theoretical equations, and there will be a greater emphasis on learning the process rather than merely providing the correct answer. Simply put, it will no longer be enough to know that 5 times 4 equals 20; students will need to understand why 5 times 4 is 20 before they move on to more complex work.
Naturally, we will need to introduce new instructional materials relevant to Common Core, and the state must adopt new assessments that promote accountability. Much of the latter work is already underway, including the development of “Smarter Balanced Assessments” for English and math. These exams will feature computer-adaptive technology that adjusts the difficulty of questions based on previous right or wrong answers, generating individualized feedback that will indicate which skills have been mastered by each student.
IUSD has written some incredible success stories over the course of its four decades, and each one is a reflection of its teachers, parents, students and staff. This latest curricular transition provides yet another opportunity for our district to shine. The California Common Core is more than just a state directive; it is a pedagogical shift that is worthy of our full commitment because these new standards embody the essential capacities our students will need to thrive in the 21st century. Irvine Unified begins this transition with a firm confidence that our organization has the talent and dedication for the exciting journey ahead.