Back to school: High schools initiate change to Common Core standards | August 28, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Schools - August 28, 2013

Back to school: High schools initiate change to Common Core standards

by Dave Boyce

The new school year opens at Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schools with changes. Some are subtle but significant, and others may simply be welcomed.

At both schools, teachers will be trying out the techniques for teaching to meet the state's new Common Core standards, the principals said. It will be a slow roll-out, with actual testing of students to the new standards not likely in 2013-14.

Both schools will continue efforts to have the demographic of honors and advanced-placement (AP) classes track more closely the demographic of the schools, particularly with respect to under-represented minorities.

Common Core

For teachers, the transition to Common Core means leaving behind, more or less, the lecture from the "sage on the stage," M-A Principal Matthew Zito said. In its place: interaction, engaging students person-to-person in the classroom. For students, this will mean focusing on the principles of the subject matter — rather than memorizing — and solving test problems that they haven't seen before.

"Taking what you know and applying it to a new situation is going to be a huge challenge," Mr. Zito said. Teaching to Common Core standards means departing from the model of "well-trained academic soldiers" who "drill and kill" to prepare for multiple-choice tests, Mr. Zito said. There will be sophisticated assessments that will necessitate sophisticated teaching.

Such assessments, said Woodside Principal Diane Burbank, will not consist of questions on small facts, or questions with short answers, or questions requiring simple reading comprehension. The English language arts test will cover everything but math, including science and history. The reading passages, from non-fiction instead of the more engaging fiction, will test students on their ability to make connections between readings.

Students will have to go beyond performing well on a test, Ms. Burbank said. Common Core will evaluate the skills they'll need in college and at work. "It's a different mindset," she said. Common Core leads to "good teaching and solid learning. Neither of those is easy. ... I think it's going to be better for student learning and for teacher satisfaction in teaching."

When the two Common Core tests are ready — in two to three years, Ms. Burbank said — they'll replace four Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests. The tests will be taken online, unlike paper for STAR, college admission and advanced-placement tests. One of the expected challenges: finding enough computers on test days.

At M-A, teachers are enthusiastic. "Math teachers are embracing this and want to move forward," Mr. Zito said. The English language arts teachers are applauding it too, he said, seeing it as a return to the greater discretion they had in mid-1990s.

Woodside teachers are welcoming the new practice as well, Ms. Burbank said. They will be in the forefront by introducing Common Core to students and parents, while the principal's job will be to explain it to groups such as the Shared Decision-Making Council, which includes parents engaged with guiding the school.

The Sequoia Union High School District is also engaged in expanding participation in AP classes. While students from East Palo Alto, Belle Haven in Menlo Park, and Redwood City do not have the stellar resources afforded to students in the Las Lomitas, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside elementary school districts, it won't be the end of the world if they don't do well on AP tests.

"The experience in the classroom and coming into a classroom with AP students and tackling college material while they have high school support is really valuable," Ms. Burbank said. "We don't want to be in a position of telling a student that they can't take a class."

New facilities

At Woodside, the brand new $6.2 million Digital and Media Arts building is already showing a return on its investment. In the previous school year, digital photography had five sections, whereas this year there are seven, Ms. Burbank said. In film critique, two sections have become three, and in advanced-placement computer science, there are now 36 students compared with 14 in the year before. "If you build it, they will come," Ms. Burbank said.

The AP computer science teacher is getting some outside help this year with four corporate programmers, one each from Microsoft, Google and Twitter as well as a consultant who practices in the cloud, Ms. Burbank said. The programmers will be in class daily at 8 a.m. to familiarize the teacher and students with current industry practices. The class will use particularly fast computers and up-to-date applications, Ms. Burbank said.

Meanwhile at M-A, ceramics students will be making objets d'art in a redesigned "bright and airy" classroom and baking them in new and larger kilns. Food preparation and ceramics are two areas of study of enduring popularity, Mr. Zito said. "Hundreds and hundreds (of students) like to take both these programs."

New classes

M-A's offerings are the same as they were in 2012-13, but at Woodside, the AP Mandarin class is new this year, fulfilling a commitment to provide four years of Mandarin to complement four-year programs in Spanish, French and Latin.


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