Berkeley Unified School District to fully incorporate Common Core standards

Alvin Wu/Staff

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Amid varying viewpoints on whether changes in teaching structure will be positive for schools around the country, Berkeley Unified School District is gearing up to fully implement Common Core State Standards into its curriculum.

The new standards are based on developing students’ critical thinking skills for English language arts and mathematics in a way that aims to prepare students for real-world issues. The standards are designed to help students in every state reach common learning goals by the end of each grade and to promote problem-solving experience to ready them for college and beyond.

According to the Common Core website, more than 40 states have adopted the new set of standards since it was launched in 2009. California adopted the standards in 2010 and expects full implementation by the 2014-2015 academic year.

In Berkeley, the math portion of the standards will be incorporated into the curriculum on a rolling basis. Last year, students in kindergarten through seventh grade were taught curriculum that aligned with the standards; this year, eighth graders will also be eased into the new curriculum, with ninth graders the following year and so on.

Mel Stenger, the principal of Washington Elementary School, said his school is focused on aligning its curriculum with the standards by teaching its students fewer ideas in deeper ways through encouraging more engagement and interaction. For example, students will have a writing assignment they will work on over the course of three to four weeks, rather than having a new one every week, which will encourage more meaningful compositions, Stenger said.

“We’re trying to develop critical thinking skills as they face the future in different jobs that don’t even exist yet,” Stenger said. “Eventually, the noticeable change will be the social aspect of it, helping kids to be more engaged with the curriculum so they aren’t mere receptacles of what the teacher says.”

The new standards represent a paradigm shift that everyone — students, teachers and parents alike — will have to adjust to, said Jacob Disston, who taught seventh-grade math last year at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Disston said he believes some of the negative reactions to the standards stem from anxieties about whether students will understand the new curriculum and feel challenged enough.

“That attitude, I think, presumes that what was happening before was good, and it wasn’t,” Disston said. “Change is going to take time and a lot of work, but what was in place wasn’t good for those students.”

Berkeley High School is currently preparing to implement some of the new standards in English language arts through new writing tasks such as developing argumentative essays that are evaluated based on a new rubric, said Tamara Friedman, a professional development coordinator at the school.

The school has also hired instructional coaches to help instructors transition into the new ways of teaching. The math department plans to hire a coach who will devote 60 percent of his or her time to improving teachers’ focus on the Common Core’s math practices, Friedman said.

“Basically, we’re looking at the work we’ve done in the past and finding the places where we need to transition over to the new standards,” Friedman said.

But Marina Ratner, a professor emeritus of mathematics at UC Berkeley who recently penned an op-ed criticizing the standards’ effectiveness, believes school districts should still have a curriculum based on California’s previous educational standards but with more accountability on the part of teachers to follow the curriculum rigorously and cover all the material.

“To help students to learn, the school districts should make sure that the textbooks and resources they choose for instructions have both depth and rigor on the one hand, and simplicity and coherence on the other,” Ratner said in an email.

Contact Natalie Meier at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @nat_meier.