OAKLAND -- Oakland public schools are instituting a sea change in education, called Common Core State Standards, to help students think more critically about math, reading, science, history and social sciences.

It's the Common Core curriculum that will help them be more ready for college once they graduate from high school, said Jody London, District 1 representative for the Oakland Unified School District board of supervisors.

London, who serves North Oakland, hosted a Jan. 24 meeting at Sankofa Academy to help parents better understand the program. While the meeting was well-attended by principals, educators and representatives of the League of Women Voters, who were there to research their position on the school district's programming, there were very few parents at the event.

"I don't think there's a lot of awareness of the changes," said Chris Schreiber, PTA president at Chabot Elementary School, where his children attend kindergarten, second and fourth grades. "There's a shocking level of passivity."

Common Core's tenets, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association for Best Practices, were outlined by Maria Santos, deputy superintendent of instruction, leadership and equity-in-action for the district. She said the program was rolled out last year and will be instituted throughout the schools this year and next.

"We want to be diligent in making sure that every one of our students has a plan to graduate and to get them there," Santos said. "The worse thing we want to do is promise a child graduation and not be able to give them enough credits and tools to do that."

In Common Core, students are asked to critically think about the subject matter teachers present at their grade level. Instead of just reading text and reciting what it says, they are asked to analyze what is being said, construct opinions and arguments about the material and present those arguments to their classmates. Students will be asked to critique the reasoning of others and generally get involved more in classroom reading material.

In math and science education, students will not only learn how to add and subtract but they will also be given complex problems to work out, explain and justify to their teachers and other students. It's no longer a question of which value is larger, three-eighths or one-half. It's a question of how a student comes to the answer and engaging other students in dialogue about the meaning behind mathematical or scientific rules. They will struggle with complex tasks and come to conclusions based on their work.

"In mathematics, we're doing a more backward design, units of study that start with a complex problem then instruction, more complex problems and more instruction and then assessment," Santos said.

The theory behind this level of discussion is that students may not understand the material they are presented until they understand it well enough to explain it to someone else.

"They are asked to argue, substantiate and justify," Santos said. "Principals are looking for discourse."

Oakland schools are ahead of the curve on Common Core. They have been working since August 2010 to adopt them and are implementing them now while the state of California adopted them in May 2012 and will be implementing them in the coming years. A total of 45 states have embraced Common Core, which will equalize math and English instruction throughout the country.

Common Core State Standards also provides more development and hours of instruction for teachers and principals. Like any new program in the district, however, there are questions of how the Oakland Unified School District will pay for the changes.

"The Common Core is potentially really great, but the state hasn't given us any more money to do it so we're going to need help," London said. "We're heading into a budget process now so it's very much on the mind of the board how we're going to fund this."

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