Staff writers

A seismic shift in education is shaking up California classrooms.

Teachers are rewriting lesson plans and rethinking how they run classrooms, as part of the first-ever attempt to set nationwide standards for K-12 education. The Common Core State Standards not only could revamp what students do day-to-day in classes, but also offer the public a way to make meaningful, apples-to-apples comparisons of schooling across the nation.

For centuries, U.S. public education has been managed locally, often rooted in ancient ways: a teacher talks, students listen and read, their success measured by proving how much they've absorbed.

But concern about dismal U.S. student achievement, even among those labeled "proficient" on some tests, prompted states in 2008 to launch an initiative to modernize and share standards. Now 45 states and the District of Columbia will share K-12 goals set in the Common Core, which challenges teachers to offer more relevant, practical and rigorous lessons, and students to solve problems and think critically.

New standardized tests will debut in spring, so schools are training teachers, educating parents and purchasing materials and technology for the computer-only tests.

Fueled by $1.25 billion from the state for the transition, a cadre of consultants and innovator teachers is showing colleagues how to rethink lessons and methods.

"This is an exciting time for California," said Deborah Sigman, deputy state superintendent of schools.

The standards cover only English and math, but spread responsibility for literacy to teachers of other subjects. Schools are free to decide what and how to teach, but their success will be measured on tests common to many states.

But in California, parents won't know how schools do, because for at least the first, and perhaps later, years, the state will not publish results of the successor to STAR exams, known as Smarter Balanced tests.

The state has left the transition to Common Core up to school districts, and implementation varies widely. A few schools have shifted to new curriculum, some have converted certain classes or grades, but in many places teachers are still just learning what they should be doing differently. Among the "early adopters," many embrace the change.

"For the first time, I feel that my students are truly understanding the algebra concepts in depth," said Laura Fujikawa, of Bret Harte Middle School, in her ninth year of teaching math, and her first year teaching Common Core in San Jose Unified.

Teacher Beth Levine said her fourth-graders at Montalvin Manor Elementary in San Pablo have to be able to talk about doing math in multiple ways -- and to write about it. "The ones who are confused right now will learn the most," said Levine, recently named a Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year.

One day last month, she asked English-language learners to figure out the purpose of a biography of Coretta Scott King -- which was to communicate information, rather than to entertain or persuade. "There is a lot more focus on informative text in Common Core," she said.

While some teachers don't yet grasp Common Core's changes, most welcome California's decision to jettison its exhaustive list of grade-by-grade standards. Those made teachers beholden to the California Standards Test (CST), the core of the annual STAR test.

"We've been living in the world of CSTs for so long, we've gotten used to having lousy tests," said Andrea Gould, math coordinator for the San Mateo Union High School District. "Common Core offers a lot of opportunities for more rigor in our classrooms, and also actually tries to get students to learn ideas more deeply and understand concepts."

But educators worry whether their school districts are fully equipped for the change. Principal Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus said Montalvin Manor will have third-graders practice typing and manipulating a mouse to prepare for the new standardized tests, which after a trial period will be given only on computers.

In Antioch, Lone Tree Elementary has only 35 computers usable for testing. Without more hardware, it would take 25 days for its 420 students to take the new state tests, officials said.

A years-long project led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new standards are based on research on how students learn best and what's needed to prepare them for college and work.

"It's not top-down any more," said Randy Hollenkamp, site director at Bulldog Tech middle school in San Jose's Evergreen School District. "It's student-centered."

Acosta-Verprauskus said Common Core allows for more innovation and will better prepare students for college.

Not all parents agree. Carla Burks, whose child will enter kindergarten in Pleasant Hill next year, worries the standards lack rigor. "From what I understand, the standard is for nonselective community and state colleges, which is not what I want my child to reach for," she said. "It appears to be reaching for mediocrity, not greatness."

But Bill Morones, director of secondary education in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, said nothing stops students from taking higher-level courses.

With the responsibility for teaching literacy spread across disciplines, some teachers have reservations.

"I didn't go to school as a science major to teach kids how to write," said Christine Smith, who teaches seventh-grade biology at Cabrillo Middle School in Santa Clara. She worries about sacrificing hands-on work and mastery of science concepts for reading articles and writing responses to them.

Science teachers also face the double-whammy of revamping their lessons according to new science standards, which California adopted this year. So far, she said science teachers haven't gotten much direction from Santa Clara Unified.

Maureen Burt, who teaches history at Mount Pleasant High in San Jose, said she agrees with the Common Core goal of having students figure out problems, understand how other people think, and be able to explain their own reasoning -- skills sorely lacking in recent years.

And yet, even while applauding changes, teachers draw on a reservoir of doubt.

Experienced teachers, Burt said, "fear a total pendulum swing where students are taught to think but lack knowledge to think effectively."

In Mount Diablo, the teachers union worries about a lack of planning. Teachers feel they're being told about changes and are then sent to implement them on their own, union President Guy Moore said.

"I think we all believe the Common Core is a great idea," he said, adding that it reflects the way many teachers teach, with in-depth discussions and student projects. "Teachers want Common Core to work, but we need a voice and we need concrete examples, so we can see what is being done."

Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12. Contact Theresa Harrington at tharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-945-4764.