Common Core emphasizes ‘thinking deeply and problem solving’

April 2, 2015

EdSource is conducting a series of interviews featuring educators’ experiences with the Common Core State Standards. Aspire Public Schools is one of six districts that EdSource is following during implementation of the new standards. For more information about the Common Core, check out our guide.

Elise Darwish has been on the leadership team of Aspire Public Schools since its founding and currently serves as its chief academic officer. She has worked in education for more than 25 years. Darwish began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher in inner-city Chicago. She has also been a mentor teacher, assistant principal and administrator. Prior to Aspire, Elise was the instructional coordinator at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in Educational Administration from San Francisco State University.

The main reason she chose education, she said, is the students: “I just know when I walk into a classroom that it’s going to be a happy experience. Kids will say things that will make me smile, or they’re going to think about things in ways I never thought of, that is so interesting. The kind of joy that kids bring, you can’t really get that anywhere else in the world, or in any other job.”

Darwish talked with EdSource recently about preparing teachers and students for the Common Core standards in her organization. Here are excerpts from the interview:

You’ve seen reforms come and go. How enthusiastic or skeptical are you about the Common Core?

I would land on the very enthusiastic side. In part because of the value it places on kids thinking deeply and problem solving.

On rolling out Common Core, we’re more like a school district. We have instructional practices that we’ve always had, that we’ve refined, that align better with Common Core. And those are common across all of our schools. For example, guided reading is consistent across all of our schools a certain number of times a week, and in that sense it’s a mandated practice.

Our math materials are also mandated in the sense we want to be able to have consistent and effective coaching, and that means similar materials. We have common assessments three times a year that are aligned with Common Core. For this year, since the Common Core is such a big thing to roll out, what we asked schools to do was to pick majors and minors.

We don’t think you can simultaneously get good at the instructional shifts in math and writing and reading all in the same year. So we said, “We know you’re still going to teach math, but if your [school’s] major is writing, you’re just going to go page by page in the new math book, you’re not going to go deep. You’re going to go really deep on what your major is.”

Would you have given the interim assessments if their release had not been delayed?

We think if we had known about it earlier, we would have spread out the administration of it. Because I’m dying to know how our kids are going to do. But seven hours in March is just too much when they’re going to take the actual test in two months anyway.

What has been the most encouraging aspect of the implementation so far?

So I think what’s encouraging is that it’s so aligned with what we believe about kids and what they’ll need to succeed in college. Even though teachers are killing themselves and principals and everyone’s working really hard, it feels productive. It feels like it’s moving us forward in the right direction

One of the big things I’m hearing from teachers is they want more planning time. I totally hear that. And I’m also hearing they appreciate the planning time they have. One of our regions in L.A. wants more coaches. Oakland wants more collaboration among secondary schools in the region.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

The assessments we’re giving to see if kids have mastered the standards or to inform our instruction — we’re not sure if they’re perfectly aligned with how the students will be assessed on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, and when we get the data, it’s harder to do things with it because it’s more complex data.

To what extent is there an instructional shift here? Is this a big change?

I think it is a big change. It’s easier for us to make the shift in the lower grades because learning how to read is learning how to read. Now they’re going to read non-fiction, but still learn how to read. I think what’s harder is the balance around how many times you have to ask kids to read non-fiction or do a close reading. It’s been a shift in balancing which instructional strategies get used and how often.

What are your concerns about what these scores might or might not say?

I want our kids to do well, because I want them to be ready for college. But charters are under a lot of scrutiny. If we didn’t hit a certain level on the statewide tests, they could close us. So I think the charter world has a different level of accountability as measured by these tests.

The scores are expected to go down, right?

Yes. And we are talking to our parents about what I think probably most districts are. They’ve gone down in every other state. They’re going to go down, and here’s why.

Are you hearing from principals, we don’t like this, we’re concerned, we need better materials, or are they doing OK?

Because they were all pretty much engaged in the process, we’re not hearing anyone saying, “We hate this.” We’re hearing things like around the math, secondary is very text-heavy, so how do we help our English learners and still have them get the concept? I’m pretty agnostic about materials. I actually think it’s so much more about the teacher and the instruction and the assessment. I don’t want to say I don’t care about the materials, but I think you can upgrade instruction, no matter what your materials are.

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