Teacher training course aims to boost students’ college readiness

July 21, 2015

English teachers Carrie McMullen, left, from Santa Ana Unified, and Angelina Parque, from Garden Grove Unified, discuss lesson plans during a workshop at Orange County Department of Education offices in Costa Mesa.

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A California State University reading and writing course originally designed to help 12th-grade English teachers prepare more seniors for college-level coursework is expanding into lower grades – a shift that reflects the Common Core’s increased emphasis on college readiness.

Nearly 5,000 teachers across the state in grades 7 through 12 will sign up this summer and fall for CSU’s Expository Reading and Writing Course. The program offers training to help teachers develop students’ proficiency in expository, analytical and argumentative reading and writing. These skills, which educators say are often lacking among incoming freshman, are also now key components of the state’s new curriculum standards.

The professional development course, created a decade ago to help reduce the number of students who need remedial classes when they begin college, for the third straight year includes teachers in grades 7 through 11. CSU officials are working to expand the training for teachers in grades 5 and 6 as early as next summer.

“We have determined that the earlier in a student’s career we begin implementing some of these college prep strategies, the more success the student will have,” said Nancy Brynelson, co-director for the CSU’s Center for the Advancement of Reading.

New lessons for teachers

The 23-college system is offering the free training course at about two dozen locations across the state, mostly through partnerships with county offices of education. It consists of a series of workshops spread over four days for a combined 20 to 24 hours of training.

Inside a conference room at the Orange County Department of Education offices in Costa Mesa, 22 teachers from Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and Ventura counties met last week to review modules, or lesson templates, for reading and writing exercises on topics that included: racial profiling; the juvenile justice system; language, gender and culture; bullying; and good and bad foods.

As course instructors provided guidance, teachers sat in small groups to discuss how they would implement the lessons for students. For example, they reviewed a module about rhetoric in writing that requires students to read the 2003 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece “A Change of Heart about Animals,” where author Jeremy Rifkin argues for increased empathy in the treatment of animals.

The module outlined questions for student discussions that included: “What are the major claims and assertions made in this reading?” “What can you infer about the author from the text?” and “Do you think the author is trying to manipulate the readers’ emotions?”

Through these assignments, students learn to evaluate key vocabulary, analyze author’s stylistic choices, learn to gather evidence to support claims and learn to avoid plagiarism.

The lessons are “designed to offer what we think students need to do well in college-level courses,” said workshop instructor Chris Street, a secondary education professor at Cal State Fullerton.

“They’re designed for any kid aspiring for college,” he said. “It’s as global as that.”

Naomi Gonzalez, an English teacher at Los Angeles International Charter High School, said she hopes the workshop will arm her with the lesson plans she needs to build a college preparation course for 9th-graders that her school is launching this fall.

“This course is showing me that it’s never too early for students and teachers to start the college prep process,” she said.

Teachers have the option to decide how many modules they want to include over the course of the school year.

Sharing goals of the Common Core

Brynelson said that because the Common Core standards were created to match skill sets traditionally needed for success in college-level coursework, it didn’t take much to align the Expository Reading and Writing Course with the new standards.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” she said. “Requiring students to think critically, problem solve, and effectively communicate have consistently been skills necessary to succeed in college.”

CSU started the training program in 2004 when the system created the Early Assessment Program, or EAP, a test given to 11th-graders to measure whether they’re ready for college-level work.

To date, about 11,000 California teachers have participated in the CSU program. About 700 high schools now offer the year-long 12th-grade Expository Reading and Writing class as an alternative to traditional English courses.

The initial goal of the CSU program was to help incoming freshmen avoid remedial classes.

Nearly half of freshmen entering CSU campuses each year need non-credit remedial courses in English, math, or both, according to state figures. About 80 percent of students entering California’s community colleges also need some remediation.

Students who have to enroll in remedial courses are at higher risk of dropping out, extending the amount of time needed to graduate and spending more on tuition and fees for the added classes and books they need, according to state figures.

Going forward, the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced Assessments will replace the EAP as the state’s measurement of college readiness. Many experts and educators expect that because the Smarter Balanced exams are new and more rigorous than previous standardized tests, far fewer students might initially be labeled as college ready. (Students who pass in their senior year an Advanced Placement English class, IB English class or honors English class are labeled college ready regardless of their score on the Smarter Balanced test.)

Incoming seniors, the first high school students to take Smarter Balanced exams this spring, will receive their scores next month. Students who did not reach the college-ready classification in English are encouraged to enroll their senior year in CSU’s Expository Reading and Writing class.

Those who don’t pass the class, or don’t take it, and are accepted to a CSU campus must take CSU’s English Placement Test to determine if they can enroll in college-level English courses. Those who fail, or don’t take the placement test, are now required to enroll in a summer remediation program before their freshman year.

Those are reasons why more school districts are directing teachers from a wider range of grade levels to sign up for CSU’s training program, Brynelson said.

“We started having a lot of teachers in our workshops telling us we needed to do this training much earlier,” Brynelson said. “We’re also finding that students learning in these modules are not only better prepared for college, their academic achievement improves overall.”

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