LOS ANGELES—A half dozen children are gathered around a table for small-group reading day in Claudine Phillips’ sunny second-grade classroom at Roscomare Road Elementary in the affluent Bel Air section of the city.
The class had recently read a short nonfiction story about Native American parents in New York who created the Freedom School to teach their children about tribal traditions. Phillip knows most of her 22 kids can sound out the words, but her goal today is to get them to delve deeply into the story’s details, to “Read like a detective,” as big cut-out letters on her classroom wall put it.
“Put on your detective hats, guys,” Phillips says, as she encourages them to “hunt” for the “when” and “where” in the text.
Small fingers run down the lines of type as six pairs of eyes scan the words. Once they have an answer, Phillips encourages students to share it with their seat mates before she starts a group discussion. After several children volunteer that the school was created in New York in the 1970s, Phillips keeps pushing. “What’s the evidence for that?” she asks. Pages flip as they search for the right spots in the text.
“And is the school still going on?” Phillips asks. “Are all these pictures from the 1970s?”
“No,” says Sarah.
“How do you know?” asks the teacher.
“Because one of the pictures has a white board, so it couldn’t be from the 1970s,” Sarah responds, pointing to a fine detail in one of the story’s photos.
“Wow, I didn’t even notice that,” Phillips says with admiration.
As Phillips, a veteran teacher of 17 years, spent the morning working on comprehension with one small group of readers after another, she never mentions the words, “Common Core.” But much of the teaching technique she is using with the children is inspired by these new ambitious national standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, which aim to encourage critical thinking and produce students who are more competitive globally.
California adopted these standards in 2010 and state officials hope to have them fully implemented by 2014-15. Field tests of new assessments pegged to the Common Core are expected to be given this spring. Meanwhile, it’s up to teachers like Phillips to take those lofty goals and make them an everyday reality.
So for the last two years, Phillips, who has taught every grade from second to fifth, has spent a weekend a month plus some of her summer break getting extra training on how to implement the Common Core standards from experts provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District. In turn, she leads training sessions at Roscomare while road-testing new ways of teaching in her own classroom.
Few of Roscomare’s 700 students are low income, and the average home in the area sells for close to $2 million. The K-5 school has more resources than most, thanks to the generosity of parent volunteers and fundraising. The transition to the new standards here may be easier than in some places, yet, Phillips says, it’s been far from easy. Common Core requires both more planning and more flexibility on the part of teachers, Phillips says. For example, the new standards encourage all teachers to include more nonfiction reading, the kind of text students are most likely to encounter in college and in their careers. So Phillips has had to rethink her traditional reading list and study units.
The new standards push for more critical thinking, which can be challenging for second graders, because even if they are capable of decoding the sounds of letters, they’re typically “not good at taking meaning” from what they read, Phillips says. “They don’t stop and wonder. They’ll read that a giraffe’s neck is eight feet long and they just keep going. I have to say to them, ‘Take a breath. Think about that.’ They think fast is better, and I say, ‘No, better is better.’”
So when she’s leading the discussion, she is training herself, she says, “to question them in a way that will propel their thinking forward, without giving them the answer, without telling them what to think.”
Common Core also encourages teachers to spend less time lecturing and more time getting students to be actively involved in learning. “My goal is to get the kids—and second grade is a tough year to do it—to question each other,” Phillips says. “I’m trying to get them to listen to each other, not to talk over each other, but to build on each other’s ideas.” In essence, she says, she’s trying to create a new classroom culture.
But Phillips is quick to acknowledge that this is a work in progress, and teachers who work with seven-year-olds know there can be surprises. This morning, for instance, Phillips had to steer the discussion back to the Mohawk tribe after one child suddenly changed the subject to a video he’d seen of a shark biting off the “arm” of a turtle. But there are plenty of promising moments too, like when one child wondered aloud how the Freedom School got its name, while others discussed the importance of heritage to families, and why students in California might be interested in a school for Native Americans in New York.
Her Common Core training has helped her appreciate those “meaningful, focused conversations,” she says. “I want them to have their ah-ha moment and the teacher is pivotal to guiding students to that.”
These are all big changes from the way California teachers were encouraged to teach just a few years ago. Under California’s old standards, teachers moved in lockstep through the curriculum. They knew what material they were supposed to cover every day, and how it was supposed to be presented. “I used to have more of a sense that we just had to get through this material,” Phillips says, even if it meant skimming it.
Common Core, on the other hand, prioritizes depth over breadth, and encourages teachers to make sure their kids have mastered essential skills before they move on.
“Common Core requires a shift in the teacher’s mind,” Phillips says. “It’s about the learning I see from my students. It encourages me to really assess and see if they’re getting it.” If not, then she’s free to regroup and have the class “spend a few more days” on a skill until the students master it, she says.
That’s one of the things she likes best about the Common Core. “It is bringing back the art of teaching and encouraging us to use our professional judgment,” she says. It acknowledges that good teachers “know your kids and what they need.”
Most teachers find the change invigorating, Phillips says. But after so many years of prescribed pacing and dictated curriculum, some find the new ways unnerving. “There is a buzz—I can’t say I haven’t heard it—there is some anxiety about it,” she says. “There are teachers asking, ‘Is it okay if I’m doing this?’ There are some teachers who are afraid that they will get caught doing something wrong because it looks so different in the classroom.”
There is also concern that some parents may have difficulty accepting Common Core’s requirement that teachers go slow and develop a much deeper understanding of basics—like addition and subtraction—even with their high achieving students. Like their kids, some assume faster is better.
“What I hear from parents is, ‘My kid can do multiplication already,” Phillips says, “and I say, ‘Fantastic! But they don’t have a great understanding of number sense yet. They can do computation, but if we give them a word problem, you see them struggle much more.’” Common Core raises the bar higher by encouraging teachers to ask their students to explain how they got their answer. “Even my brightest kids struggle to explain their thinking,” she says. But the process helps them see that they can solve the same problem “in multiple ways.”
There is still a lot of work ahead before the new standards are fully in place, Phillips says, but she sees encouraging signs that Common Core is making a difference. She has noticed that her second graders this year are better decoders than second-grade classes she has had in the past. She wonders if the new standards get the credit. Last year, 18 of her 23 students scored at the “advanced” level on the state mathematics assessment, she says, which was a new personal high for her. “I was very proud, and thought to myself, ‘What we did worked,’” she says. “Now I think: we need to delve deeper.”