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.
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.
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.