Common Core State Standards are compelling California’s teacher preparation programs to do something that doesn’t come easily to institutions of higher education – change.
Up to now, much of teaching in California has been criticized as being grounded in the principal measure of success under No Child Left Behind – preparing students to fill in the correct bubbles on standardized tests. It called for instilling a lot more rote than rigor.
If the old California State Standards, created in 1997, were “a mile wide and an inch deep,” as noted Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond disparaged them, then Common Core could be described as covering less and covering it deeply. The new voluntary standards, adopted by 45 states, move away from what some have charged is an excessive reliance on memorization – of math formulas, for instance – and call for a stronger focus on fundamental skills and deeper learning concepts and strategies to give students the knowledge to figure out how to solve problems.
That demands a different approach to teaching, one that places teacher preparation programs at the state’s colleges and universities at the vanguard of preparing the next generation of teachers to successfully implement Common Core in their classrooms.
But there is no uniform path or coordinated process for training new teachers in California, or in most other Common Core states, that tells colleges what specific changes to make or how to make them to prepare young teachers to best teach the standards. The colleges are taking different approaches to training teachers, often working in isolation, even within the state’s large public university systems.
“We’re talking about major shifts in pedagogy,” said Cynthia Grutzik, president of the California Council on Teacher Education and associate dean of the College of Education at California State University, Long Beach, which graduated 542 new teachers last year, more than any other Cal State campus. “It has forced us to restructure our program.”
Teachers will have to change everything from what they teach to how they teach. Lesson plans relying heavily on lectures will by-and-large be benched in favor of interactive, hands-on and group projects. Teachers, who typically close their classroom doors and work alone, will need to learn how to collaborate, develop interdisciplinary activities and even how to ask questions differently to push students toward critical analysis and problem solving.
The change is hitting California classrooms now. Students this year will take practice tests in math and English aligned to the new Common Core standards, while the first statewide exam aligned to the standards rolls out in spring 2015.
In March, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which accredits teacher education programs and sets standards for teacher credentialing, provided some guidance to teacher preparation programs when it revised the performance standards for teachers to become licensed. The commission gave the state’s 261 accredited teacher preparation programs until June 2014 to submit a summary of the steps they’ve taken toward retooling their curricula to fit the teaching methods and content of Common Core. Until then, there’s no official tally of what’s going on at each campus.
Even with the June 14 deadline, individual schools have broad autonomy and flexibility over how they meet the new mandate from the credentialing commission.
“We’re in conversations with the programs, but don’t have any public documentation to show if they’ve fully changed over to address Common Core State Standards or to know how far along they are,” said Nancy Brownell, who oversees Common Core implementation for the State Board of Education.
Some of the challenges are financial. Revising a curriculum takes time and money. Typically professors get released from teaching to focus on major revisions, but many teacher preparation programs can’t afford it. Also missing are textbooks and other instructional materials both for current classroom teachers and for teacher preparation programs.
When the state Legislature approved $1.25 billion in the 2012-13 budget for California school districts to implement Common Core, that largesse didn’t extend to teacher preparation programs at the university level. Cal State Long Beach has been able to use a portion of a $400,000 grant to train teachers in project-based learning to help cover the cost, but other campuses have not received additional funding. The California State University system, which prepares nearly half of all newly credentialed teachers in the state, is just beginning to recover from nearly $1 billion in cuts between 2007-08 and last year. About 7 percent of new teachers attended teacher preparation programs at the University of California; the remainder study at private colleges or in alternative programs.
Excited about math
Schools of education have one big advantage that could help them overcome the challenges of transitioning to Common Core. For the most part, education professors are excited about the new standards and have been long-time advocates for more collaborative, deeper, hands-on education.
Patricia Swanson, an associate professor of elementary education at San Jose State University, says Common Core standards are a better fit for the way she and her colleagues in math education prefer to teach students who are preparing to become elementary school teachers.
“One of the things people are feeling is, ‘Oh, thank goodness. Finally we have standards and mathematical practices that say how we want kids doing math,'” Swanson said.
Before Common Core, even if she taught her credential students methods of teaching that rely on project-based learning or hands-on activities, Swanson said some wouldn’t be able to use those techniques once they had jobs because of pressure from the state and federal accountability systems and emphasis on standardized tests. “That was out of sync with what particularly under-performing schools wanted their teachers to do,” said Swanson, which was to get through the material so students would be ready to take high-stakes tests.
On a recent Thursday morning in a third floor classroom in Sweeney Hall at San Jose State, five of Swanson’s 27 students stood in the front of the room to demonstrate a lesson on how to teach patterns to children in first, second and third grades. Swanson modeled a teaching method her students could use in their elementary classrooms once they complete the university’s year-long graduate school teacher preparation program and become credentialed teachers.
“How many eyes does he have?” asked Swanson, pointing to the first student. “Two,” the class responded. “Two people, how many eyes?” she asked, pointing to the second student. “Four,” came the answer. “There we go, our patterns just grew,” said Swanson as she continued the exercise with all five volunteers.
At the same time, another student stood at the white board drawing a simple table with two sides, writing the number of people on the left and number of eyes on the right. Swanson then had everyone plot the pattern on a graph and create a mathematical equation to calculate the number of eyes with any number of people: 2x=y.
The idea is to give young elementary school students different strategies to figure out math problems so they’re not dependent on memorizing a formula, Swanson explained.
“If memorization is all you’ve got, when you forget, you’re done,” she said.
Her students can relate to that. They learned math as a series of formulas to memorize and some still bear the scars of repetition.
“I hated math, I still hate math,” admitted student Kayce Dalton, while grabbing a cup of tea during a break in class. “We learned just by memorizing things.”
“When I learned math the teacher told me what to do and I did it,” added her classmate Alexa Bloom. “I didn’t understand why I was doing things.”
Her students have already seen the benefits of using these teaching methods in the classes where they student teach. Dalton, the student teacher, said the classroom teacher she’s working with also took courses from Swanson in graduate school and uses many of the same lessons, including the pattern exercise built around counting eyes.
“They did really well with it,” Dalton said. “I think they really understand the rule and how to make equations.”
For now, math professors have an edge over their colleagues in English language arts, the other subject covered by Common Core standards. Last month, the State Board of Education approved the mathematics frameworks, a set of principles, priorities and content that students need to learn in every grade and discipline, such as algebra, geometry and calculus. It also contains sample lessons.
No such framework for English language arts has been approved, although the framework is getting closer to a state board vote. A draft was posted in December on the California Department of Education website and is open for public comment until Feb. 13, said Hallie Yopp Slowik, who teaches English language arts at Cal State Fullerton’s college of education and is co-author of the frameworks.
The Common Core standards, while focusing on math and English language arts, also call for a strong interdisciplinary approach to topics, weaving concepts throughout multiple subjects. New teachers have to understand that academics can’t be taught in silos, Yopp Slowik said.
“Teaching English language arts isn’t a three-hour part of the day and, oh, if you can squeeze in science, social studies and the arts (in addition to that), that’s a bonus,” she said. “That’s not a bonus, that’s fundamental, it is core to literacy development.”
Education faculty at Cal State Long Beach made interdisciplinary collaboration a priority when they began redesigning their program more than a year ago. Every credential student who plans to teach middle or high school has to know how to teach reading, even in a history or science class, in case they have ninth graders who aren’t reading at grade level. In the interdisciplinary approach embedded in Common Core, the principle of critical thinking applies to every subject.
Under previous teaching standards, students would make limited connections about texts and teachers might leave it at that, said San Jose State Assistant Professor Jolynn Asato: “’Oh, this story is about a dog; I have a dog.’ And (the discussion) doesn’t really go anywhere,” she said.
Students can answer that question and others like it without having read a word, said Asato, who teaches English language arts methods classes. With Common Core, Asato tells her credential candidates that they’ll need to push their students to make deeper, richer connections that enable them to make inferences about characters and plot after reading the book.
Asato pulled out “The Cats in Krasinski Square” from her bookshelves and read a few paragraphs of the story about a teenage girl who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II and agrees to a dangerous plan to smuggle food to the Jews still held inside.
After reading the text, she said she would ask her teacher credential students to think about the kinds of increasingly deeper levels of questions they would ask the children in their own classrooms, starting with how they would feel in the narrator’s situation, and moving on to how they think the narrator is feeling.
The questions require students to use the text to back up their answers. “I’m asking them to infer,” Asato said. Before Common Core State Standards, she said she might have ended the discussion by simply asking students to talk about their emotions after reading the section. That won’t wash anymore. The future teachers in Asato’s credential class will have to know how to draw students into a meaningful discussion of a book or story based on the clues embedded in their questions.
“Looking at Common Core has give me a bit of hope that we’re moving in the right direction, and it’s nice to be able to talk about that in the (credential) class,” Swanson said. “The idea that you will teach less but teach it more deeply; is it perfect? No. But is it an improvement? Yes.”
Kathryn Baron covers career and college readiness. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @TchersPet. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.
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