Reforms > Common Core

Common Core poses big challenge for students, big opportunity for teachers


The complex language skills that are the focus of Common Core's English language arts standards will be required in math and the new science standards and are integral to the newly adopted California language standards for English learners (courtesy of Dr. Norma Sanchez of CTA's Instruction and Professional Development Department and presenter at CTA's Summer Institute this month.

The complex language skills that are the focus of Common Core’s English language arts standards will be needed to excel in Common Core math and the new science standards. They are  stressed, too, in California’s new language standards for English learners. Courtesy of Dr. Norma Sanchez of CTA’s Instruction and Professional Development Department and a presenter at CTA’s Summer Institute.

With an emphasis on developing verbal and analytical skills, the new Common Core standards will pose a big step up for most students. For English learners, who comprise a quarter of California’s children, it’ll seem more like a pole vault.

“Common Core is pushing us toward a higher level of achievement, and that depth is predicated on an ability to use language in sophisticated ways,” said Ben Sanders, director of standards, assessment and instruction for the 10 districts that formed the nonprofit California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.

Recognizing this will also be a unique opportunity and a heavy lift for teachers. CORE’s second annual Common Core summer conference for 450 teachers and administrators in San Francisco this month concentrated on teaching academic language – the shorthand for becoming fluent in the vocabulary, compound sentences and thought processes demanded to analyze texts, form coherent questions, create logical arguments and collaborate on projects.

Robert Linquanti, an adviser on both the new state English  Language Development standards and the new Common Core English language assessments

Robert Linquanti, an adviser on both the new state English Language Development standards and the new Common Core English language assessments (photo by John Fensterwald).

These are the priorities of the Common Core, which 45 states, including California, and the District of Columbia have adopted. In a sign of agreement over its importance, the California Teachers Association also made academic language under Common Core a theme at its annual Summer Institute for 1,100 teachers in Los Angeles – and for those who viewed webinars online last week.

Summing up the challenge, one principal at the CORE conference quipped, “Academic language is a foreign language.”

Robert Linquanti, a senior researcher at WestEd and an adviser on both the new state English Language Development Standards and the new Common Core English language assessments, would agree. It’s challenging for most students, but especially English learners, who start with a deficit: They start school on average with a knowledge of 5,000 fewer words than their fluent English peers.

Academic language, “is not just informal talk that could occur in the playground or on a basketball court, or just hanging out with your friends at home, or texting – which is its own form of communication,” Linquanti, who gave presentations at both the CORE and CTA conferences, said in an interview. “Students need to be using these more formal uses of language, and they won’t be if teachers are not aware of it themselves  and do not have the pedagogical expertise.”

Adds Sanders, “In the context of Common Core, almost all students are academic language learners. At the same time we all agree – as English language researchers vociferously assert – that the needs of EL students are distinct from native English speakers, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise, even as we mount an effort to support all students’ development of academic language and literacy development.”

Unified, coherent, interdisciplinary

Effective teachers have always taught students how to analyze, critique and debate through group and solitary work, writing and oral presentations. The difference is that Common Core has made as guiding principles the ability to “comprehend and evaluate complex tasks” and “construct effective arguments” across subjects and disciplines. Particularly in later grades, it stresses the ability to analyze and cite evidence from informational texts (go here for a useful teacher’s guide to creating text-dependent questions). The new math standards also require verbal proficiency; students will be asked to explain their work in multiple ways, to “make conjectures … justify their conclusions, communicate them and respond to the arguments of others.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, which the State Board of Education is expected to adopt this fall, incorporate similar objectives. And the newly adopted English Language Development Standards, which identify the knowledge, skills and abilities that English learners need for academic work, now align with the Common Core English language arts standards and its goal of preparing students for college and careers. The themes running through all of these sets of standards offer more coherence than found in previous standards.

Patrick Bohman praises the coherent approach to critical thinking found in the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core.

Patrick Bohman praises the coherent approach to critical thinking found in the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core (photo by John Fensterwald).

That interdisciplinary approach excites Patrick Bohan, an assistant principal of Sacramento City Unified’s School of Science and Engineering, which focuses on STEM careers for students in grades 7-12. The school’s mission, he said, is “to make critical thinking more explicit” and to reinforce common approaches to analyzing problems, whether in engineering, biology or history.

“We have a significant population of English learners who plateau after they are reclassified as fluent in English,” he said. Other students can “fake it” even though they test as proficient in middle school. “Common Core will push them beyond just getting by.”

Common Core, ELD standards on same page

It’s always been a tough sell for single-subject high school teachers to become conversant with English Language Development standards, Linquanti said. But the new ELD standards, with fewer and clearer standards, “can give teachers insights to where students are and help them to draw students’ language skills forward,” he said. At the same time, dedicated time for English language learners, whether pullout periods or after-school classes, needs to be better coordinated with mainstream classes to develop academic language. There should be no more teaching grammar for grammar’s sake or “impoverished forms of ELD instruction where we’re just focusing on bits and pieces of language that don’t add up to a whole,” Linquanti said.

Hilary Cloud, a language coach with Sanger Unified, one of the CORE districts, welcomes the ties between Common Core and English Language Development standards. “Lots of teachers haven’t been focused on ELD, which they saw as done in another classroom,” she said.

For teachers, a messy, risky, necessary shift

A new approach to academics under the Common Core will be challenging, but also potentially liberating for teachers who have labored through pacing guides and prepackaged lesson plans that have frustrated them and bored students.

“Teachers have to have confidence to get off script,” Sanders said.

For elementary and middle school teachers, that will require engaging students in different ways through guided one-on-one student conversations, teaching them how to listen critically, to offer feedback, to stay focused. For high school teachers, it means shifting from the lecture format, turning over control to students. Teachers, Sanders said, need to model the behaviors.

The shift “will be messy,” Sanders warned, sometimes exhausting and even “chaotic – at least the fear of it.”  Principals will now have to look for more open, active classroom practices that “look different from what they have valued.”

As a principal acknowledged in a discussion group at the CORE conference, “You have to be able to allow your staff to take risks.” Added another, “and not play gotcha.”

Principals, too, have to be honest about what they don’t know, Linquanti said. “Administrators are going to have to get smarter about what good instruction looks like, because many of them have been dumbed down just like our teachers with scripted curricula that really devalued skillful pedagogy,” he said.

This transition may be easier in Sanger, known for its effective professional learning communities, and the other CORE districts, like Sacramento City, San Francisco and Fresno, which have clear, district-wide plans for rolling out Common Core (Fresno alone sent 73 teachers and administrators to the conference). The waiver from the No Child Left Behind law that eight of the CORE districts got last week will free up millions of dollars for Common Core work this year.

But in the many districts that are just now wading into Common Core, without a history of collaboration, teachers will be confused over where to turn for guidance and lesson plans. Money for professional development has been scarce, although the Legislature in June did allocate $1.25 billion – or about $200 per student – for Common Core preparation (whether districts will spend it on iPads or teacher training remains to be seen). And the first Common Core assessments, in spring 2015, are less than two years away.

Those impending tests are particularly worrisome, and the experience last week in New York State, where initial scores on Common Core-aligned state tests fell 30 percentage points, will offer cold comfort. It showed how far schools have to go to teach complex analysis and deeper learning that the new assessments measure.

Teachers, acknowledged Cloud, will have “anxiety and underlying skepticism” even though they’re told that the new Common Core assessments are broader and better, because they’ve faced intense pressure over test scores. “The message needs to be that Common Core is not just about one test score. We all know the scores will go down” initially, she said.

Anxiety notwithstanding, Linquanti and Sanders see the next few years as a unique chance for teachers to take back their classrooms and to refocus instructional practice on academic skills that matter. “This is a golden time,” Linquanti said. “We need to open our doors to our peers, to video ourselves, to learn from the great teachers in our schools.”

“Teachers have been isolated for so many years; there is really this renaissance going on,” he said.

Filed under: Common Core

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12 Responses to “Common Core poses big challenge for students, big opportunity for teachers”

  1. Deborah said

    on August 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    A great resource for this is the building speech-language pathologist, who is especially well trained to help teachers to”guided one-on-one student conversations, teaching them how to listen critically, to offer feedback, to stay focused” In fact, many of the English Language Arts standards are objectives that SLPs often target with their students, so they are familiar with strategies and techniquest to facilitate progress on these kinds of goals.

  2. Jill said

    on August 13, 2013 at 11:38 am

    I’m disappointed that the comments have thus far focused on students who have been labelled as being at a disadvantage in normal communication. With texting, twitter, and Facebook the coin of the realm, disadvantages are pretty much equalized across the population and the result is the devastation of our ability to communicate no matter what “group” we “belong” to–how I wish we were all just Americans. We need to be looking at language learning beginning with babies in day care; who talks to them? Then as they become toddlers and are involved in parallel play in their institutionalized day care settings, who talks to them? Then as they are grouped with their peers to become role models for children who are developmentally delayed, who talks to them? When they are latchkey children or children in afterschool programs whose parents pick them up at six o’clock and their teachers at school are busy documenting everything on their laptops, who talks to them? When they are preteens and teens on various forms of social media, who talks to them? The answer is that much of their lives, children lack adult role models for their language acquisition and suffer from concentrated exposure to their peers’ manner of expression, vocabulary, and general low level of literacy. To make matters worse, most adults including teachers are now from a generation with seriously degraded literacy, vocabulary, and sophisticated expresssion. If the Common Core is really trying to address this epidemic of dumbing down our intellectual life and ability to communicate thoughtfully, I am an enthusiastic supporter, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

  3. Nancy Hudak said

    on August 13, 2013 at 9:23 am

    The “bat” example interests me because it requires at least 5 go-rounds before being complete (not counting any assessment). 2 things: (1) Are bats really that important? (2) Pity the poor gifted student who has to be a part of that.

  4. Zane de Arakal, Ed.D. said

    on August 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I am a retired California school district superintendent and now supervising student teachers at a Southern California university. Commom Core research was shallow and then rather quickly evolved into a fad. At least four states have pulled out because of cost and the snobish pedagogy.

  5. Elaine Park said

    on August 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    And yet again, no mention of how this will affect children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. I realize this article is focused on English learners, but they are not the only kids who will struggle even more with such a heavy emphasis on written academic language. We keep hearing about how wonderful it will be now that teachers will be incorporating the arts into their teaching, but if the tests are focused solely on testing mastery of academic language, this is ultimately all that will be taught.

  6. Anne White said

    on August 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    OK, OK – “easel” and “trough.” So the problem has been defined but what sort of activities should English learners and children living in poverty do to raise their cultural competence so that they will be able not only to demonstrate their skills on tests but also join the ranks of economically successful citizens. Communities should be brainstorming ways to support these children and their families. The supplemental funding of LCFF is designed to provide this support.

    Once I had a roommate from Taiwan. She’d learned English from the nuns in Formosa. Her English was flawless – she even used subjunctives appropriately. Still she knew she needed to learn everyday English. First thing she did was subscribe to Seventeen magazine so she would know what people were talking about. Perhaps a few thoughtfully considered magazine subscriptions would be appropriate use of LCFF funds.

  7. Manuel said

    on August 12, 2013 at 10:13 am

    To assume that an English learner starts with 5,000 fewer words is a mistake. Perhaps Dr. Liquanti is thinking of a kindergartener, but if he is thinking of say, a middle or high schooler, then this is problematic. Speaking from my own experience, it is possible for an English Learner to start with a vastly larger and more grandiloquent vocabulary. It just isn’t in English but in something else. (BTW, isn’t the same vocabulary deficit claimed to be found in children who re native speakers of English but live in poverty?)

    The comment about “plateauing” is indicative, to me, that Mr. Bohman is perhaps not aware that these students are possibly at the maximum level they will score in the ELA CST. After all, to be reclassified they had to pass it at least at the basic level. And we all know that secondary students are notorious for having low scores if they are not getting As in the classroom. Why? I don’t know for a fact but anecdotal evidence suggests that they know the score means nothing to their classroom grade. So they bomb the CST.

    Incidentally, take a look (and a listen) to this KPCC story: Program keeps lesser-used languages alive by teaching immigrants’ kids. And yet we outlawed bilingual education for all intents and purposes because in America you must learn English in English. Isn’t democracy great?

    • el replied

      on August 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Great link, Manuel. I have friends who are Navajo and working to keep their language alive. Recently they had a screening of Star Wars translated into Navajo. How awesome is that?

      I have personally seen native english speaking kids that come from less educated/low income families indeed show a substantially lesser vocabulary. I was in a classroom one day when a couple of these 3rd grade kids (in these cases, white) had just stopped cold on a worksheet because they didn’t know the word “easel” and were unable/unwilling to try to dig it out or to move on. Fundamentally, I believe this is our problem that is behind low achieving kids – it haunts them in both english and math, because they’ll stop working a math word problem when the vocabulary gets past them as well.

      • Manuel replied

        on August 12, 2013 at 11:13 am

        Thanks, el. I just heard it this morning and thought it was very apropo.

        Your anecdote demonstrates yet again a big problem with standardized tests: the writers assume that the test takers have the same “cultural” background they have. Consequently, if you don’t speak/read/use the language of the test you will be considered inadequate and maybe even mentally challenged, as navigio comments above.

        There is another well-known anecdote along this line but this time it involves Jaime Escalante. I may not get all the details right but here it goes: His students did extremely well on the AP Calculus test except on one problem that used the word “trough” in it (I think that the shape of the trough was given as a parabola). The students had no idea what that meant so they all skipped that question. Because of that, the test administrators (College Board?) decreed that they all had cheated. A movie was then made and Escalante gained fame, only to later come out against bilingual education. Ah, the irony.

        BTW, this will only get worse as technology advances and many words will fall out of use. Who in East LA uses troughs nowadays? You can’t keep pigs in the backyard anymore. And an easel? Who uses that when all the “painting” is done in the iPad?

        • el replied

          on August 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

          Those kids who were stumped by the word “easel” could have probably smoked all of the Fortune 500 CEOs on a test of identifying plants poisonous to livestock. A few more years of experience, and I bet they understand gas combustion engines better, too.

        • el replied

          on August 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm

          When I took my daughter to the optometrist, one of the images they use to test child eyesight is a drawing of an old fashioned dial phone. My daughter actually got it, to the surprise of both of us adults. He laughed and said he leaves it in with the older kids who seem to be seeing well just for his own amusement, but that it’s obviously not a test of visual acuity any longer.

  8. navigio said

    on August 12, 2013 at 9:02 am

    I think we need to be very careful about distinguishing between being able to perform complex analysis, logic and reasoning as a mental process and being able to communicate that through language. It is far too easy (and sadly, common) to believe people who cannot communicate in the language you speak are simply not smart. This is even arguably one of the possible reasons over-classification of learning disabilities exists for subgroups who speak something further from ‘academic english’.

    Personally, I believe someone who is bilingual will have an advantage over someone who is not when it comes to this kind of mental reasoning.

    I was also struck by the comment about RFEPs ‘plateauing’. Needless to say, that person is involved in secondary education, and reclassification only at that level likely is indicative of other significant learning barriers, but I really hope we are not in the situation where we are stunting foreign language speakers’ complex thought processes in early grades by refusing to teach them in their native language.

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