Forest Grove Elementary School teacher Beth Cina asks her second-grade students to write a number between 20 and 50 on their worksheets.
But first, she wants to know if they all understand what the word "between" means.
They all say yes. Still, the students, who are working in pairs, must prove it by defining the word to their partners.
Cina then asks three students — Habib, Riley and Max — to stand before the class for a live demonstration.
"Who is between Habib and Max?"
"Riley," everyone responds.
The students at the Pacific Grove school return to their seats for the next task. They have to come up with five equations that would result in the number they just wrote down. Tyler and Jacob, whose number is 35, write 65-30, 20+15, 55-20, 35+0.
"You can see some kids are thinking a bit more maturely," says Ani Silva, director of curriculum at Pacific Grove Unified School District. "But everyone is able to express something."
This is what math looks like under the new Common Core State Standards, adopted in California in 2010 and expected to be fully implemented in 2014. Students no longer receive a sheet with 20 equations to solve. Instead, they randomly select numbers and are asked to deconstruct or construct them with the help of their peers.
The process to teach English language arts will also be revamped so students are required to use higher thinking skills in all subjects, educators say.
This educational shift — the standards have been adopted in 45 states — is not only inspiring educators, but advocates of English learners, who believe Common Core presents an opportunity to address their needs more fully.
New standards for English learners recently approved by the California Board of Education with Common Core in mind "focus on argumentation, persuasion, evaluation, synthesis at a higher level" — things that were lacking under previous standards, says Jeanne Herrick, assistant superintendent of educational services at the Monterey County Office of Education.
"These are being structured for kids with the practice that goes with it," she says.
The idea is for all students — not just English learners — to begin using their knowledge as soon as they have acquired it. They work with a classmate to feel safe and to get used to using academic vocabulary.
Take, for instance, Christina Renteria's first-grade class at Robert Down Elementary School in Pacific Grove. After a brief explanation of "sorting" and "graphing," the students are paired up to do their own sorting, using different "attributes." On yellow sheets, they separate keys, insects, flags, stones and shells based on their particular characteristics. As they go through their items, they are supposed to talk to their partners about the process.
When they're done, Renteria asks what attribute they used to sort the items, and the students talk about color, size, shape.
"You can see the word 'sort' is in their vocabulary," Silva says. "In time they'll develop the word 'attribute.'"
Because one of the main goals of the Common Core Standards is to prepare students for "college and career," they will be weaned off literary texts and given a heavy dose of nonfiction reading.
The new standards "are going to get kids into informational texts at a younger age, and slowly build the rigor," Herrick says. "When they get to high school, every one of the classes is grounded in informational texts: science, philosophy. That's when kids hit the wall."
By then, many English learners could be fluent in conversational English without having mastered the level of sophistication language requires to write with authority. With Common Core, the situation will change, some experts are convinced.
"The Common Core indeed requires a major shift in instruction in order to get students to achieve a high level on what the standards state," says Kenji Hakuta, co-chair of the Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University, at a conference on Common Core and English learners in Los Angeles. "It's a major shift for all students, but major (even) for English language learners."
Monterey County's large population of English learners appears to have stagnated academically. Only one out of every three students in second through fourth grades reaches proficiency or higher in English language arts. In fifth through 12th grades, that number is about one in five. It's a situation that appears to have reached a critical level this year, with budget cuts eroding additional support for English learners.
No Child Left Behind aimed for all students to reach proficiency in math and English by 2014, a goal that clearly won't be achieved. With Common Core moving into place, and a new set of tests being developed to fit the new standards, a new opportunity seems afoot to lift the academic level of all students.
What the critics say
The new standards have their detractors. Sandra Stotsky, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, calls Common Core costly and mediocre. She deplores abandoning literature as robbing students not just of its academic content but of a cultural experience.
"How would the 'informational' texts ... stimulate analytical thinking more than, say, a close reading of 'Pride and Prejudice?'" Stotsky wrote last month on the website Minding the Campus.
She points out that an Iowa English teacher assigned her 10th-grade students nonfiction books about teenage marketing and the working poor — "Branded" by Alissa Quart and "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich — to address Common Core's mandate.
"Do these books present their 'information' in such ambiguous or subtle ways that close reading is needed to figure out the authors' messages?" Stotsky writes. "In contrast, think how much class discussion is needed to help students understand the irony in Austen's works."
A lot of work is still ahead before Common Core is fully implemented. Only a handful of school districts in Monterey County — including Carmel Unified, Pacific Grove Unified and Salinas Union High — have begun to incorporate some aspects of the standards into the classroom. Teachers at other districts are still in learning mode. Material and curriculum need to be developed, and it cannot be done on the cheap, prominent educators say.
Looking at opportunities
George Bunch, associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and a collaborator on Stanford's Understanding Language project, is approaching the challenge of a new system with an eye toward its opportunities.
"One of the opportunities is the education of English learners in a way that they can have access to greater rigor and higher expectations with appropriate supports in place," Bunch says. "It's not an either/or — on one hand there's high expectations and the other high support, and you can't have one without the other."
There were high expectations embedded in No Child Left Behind, but this feels different, Bunch says. Educators are excited — there's more energy in the room when he presents the topic.
"There are questions and sometimes skepticism, but it seems to me there's a lot of energy around this reform movement" compared to No Child Left Behind, he said. "(Teachers) say, 'We're being asked to be teachers again.' We'll see how it all plays out. There's a sense that this is really about increasing opportunities for students, and we're looking at how you realize those opportunities."
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.