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Second-grade teacher Claudine Phillips works with one of her small reading groups at Roscomare Road Elementary in the affluent Bel Air section of Los Angeles.Pat Wingert/The Hechinger Report

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 Akwesasne Freedom School to teach their children about tribal traditions. Phillips’ 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 said, 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 seatmates 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,” said Sarah.

“How do you know?” asked the teacher.

“Because one of the pictures has a whiteboard, so it couldn’t be from the 1970s,” Sarah responded, pointing to a fine detail in one of the story’s photos.

“Wow, I didn’t even notice that,” Phillips said 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 past 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 said, it’s been far from easy. Common Core requires both more planning and more flexibility on the part of teachers, Phillips said. For example, the new standards encourage all teachers to include more nonfiction reading, the kind of texts 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 said. “They don’t stop and wonder. They’ll read that a giraffe’s neck is 8 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 said, “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 said. “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 said, 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 7-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 said. “I want them to have their aha moment, and the teacher is pivotal to guiding students to that.”

Depth over breadth

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 said, 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 said. “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 said.

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 said. It acknowledges that good teachers “know your kids and what they need.”

Most teachers find the change invigorating, Phillips said. 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 said. “There are teachers asking, ‘Is it OK 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 slowly 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 said, “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 said. 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 said, 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 said, which was a new personal high for her. “I was very proud, and thought to myself, ‘What we did worked,’ ” she said. “Now I think: ‘We need to delve deeper.’ ”

Transition in Oakland

It’s mid-September in Lisa Rothbard’s fourth-period English class in Oakland and her last chance to prep these 32 juniors for the next day’s district writing assessment. At face value, the stakes are low; the test’s purpose is strictly diagnostic, designed to give the teacher a sense of the students’ skill level.

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Skyline High students gather in small groups to discuss the definition of a thesis statement. Instead of a lecture, teacher Lisa Rothbard aims to encourage student interaction – one of the goals of the Common Core.Pat Wingert/The Hechinger Report

But Rothbard knows it’s really more than that; it’s a chance for her kids at Skyline High in Oakland to show that they’re successfully transitioning to the Common Core standards, which aim to increase students’ analytic and critical thinking skills. They’ll have to do more than write an argumentative essay based on opinion or anecdote. To do well, her students will need to produce a solid essay, including a strong thesis statement that is backed up with evidence, sources and research. 

It’s also, in a sense, a test for Rothbard. Developing new and more effective ways to teach and help students succeed is the essential challenge of the Common Core initiative. Success or failure will depend on teachers like Rothbard working on the front lines. So, in early September, she gave her two classes of sophomores and two classes of juniors an essay prompt – “Has social networking’s impact on society been more positive or negative?” – plus a packet of research and news articles to help them prepare.

But on this day, as she walks up and down the rows of desks to check students’ progress, it’s clear that not everyone is ready. “I have never had so many sophomores and juniors who didn’t know what a thesis statement was,” she said. The objective of today’s lesson is to review the basics of a thesis statement one more time. 

Instead of kicking off with a lecture, Rothbard aims to encourage student interaction – one of the goals of the Common Core – by asking the teens to “turn and talk” with their seatmates and offer their own definitions. Soon there’s a low buzz around the room. Some kids are silent, and others are chattering about whether rap mogul Tupac Shakur is alive or dead, a question Rothbard had mentioned earlier as a possible thesis topic. But a surprising number are actually debating the definition of “thesis statement” with their neighbors, and a few minutes later, they’re ready to share their ideas with the group. 

A girl named Ajee raises her hand. “Chasiti said it’s like a plot, and I said that it’s like what’s necessary for an essay.”

“It’s like a plot,” Rothbard repeats slowly to the class. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that, and it makes a lot of sense to me. Malik?”

“It states your claim and guides where you’re going,” Malik answers.

Rothbard is pleased. Today’s lesson is taking a turn for the better. But she’s also very aware that her transition to teaching Common Core-style is still a work in progress. 

While every teacher in this traditional comprehensive high school of 1,900 students is working to make the same transition, Rothbard has a slight advantage and an extra burden. In addition to her regular classroom duties, she is one of the few teachers at her school starting their second year as Oakland Unified’s Common Core trainers.

For Rothbard, that means monthly professional development workshops run by the district, where she is the student, getting expert advice on how to implement Common Core. Back at Skyline, in addition to using what she has learned in her own classroom, she also leads collaborative training sessions with her fellow faculty members, who are generally enthusiastic about the new standards.

“Teachers often feel like, every year, there’s some new effort and new direction thrown at us that will not be seen through,” she said. “But this is different. There’s a continuity to what we’re working on, and our district is empowering teacher leadership.”

Rather than wholesale change, Rothbard sees the goals of Common Core at the high school level as encouraging teachers to create a smarter version of what they had been doing before. 

In the English department, she said, “We’re largely teaching what we’ve always taught. But we’re making changes here and there reflecting the goals” of the Common Core. For instance, she said, “We’re making this push toward using more informational texts,” the kind of complex nonfiction that students are likely to encounter in college and the work world. “The other thing I’m using my training on is making things relevant so that what the students are learning seems authentic and meaningful,” she said. “We’re building on those skills to hit all the standards, all the time.”

With her sophomores, she’s starting the year by helping them learn to do research and evaluate the credibility of online sources. At the same time, she’s urging all her kids to read for deeper meaning and to discuss their insights more often, with the hope that they will get “better and better at them as we go.” Her goal, she said, is not just getting her students to write summaries of what they have read or discussed in class, but to generate essays that display higher levels of analysis and criticism. 

So, for example, if they do a literature unit on the civil rights movement, they could read novels with that theme as well as nonfiction works like the Declaration of Independence, the Alabama clergymen’s letter to Martin Luther King Jr. and his response, written from the Birmingham City Jail. By the time they’re finished, Rothbard said, she hopes her students will be able to generate their own writing prompts as well as their own online research. “They should be able to write on topics like, ‘Is our society still segregated?’ ” she said. “Their writing should reference what they’ve learned from the initial texts and from their research, and their ideas should show an evolution.”

She added: “We’re supposed to be teaching most of the standards in every unit and building on them as we progress.”  

Common Core challenges

What’s the biggest challenge the Common Core poses at Skyline? That’s easy, said Rothbard with a sigh. Time. There’s just not enough of it. Particularly at a place like Skyline, which draws a very diverse mix of students from all over Oakland, a city with significant poverty and unemployment.

“We are trying to roll out new training, new assessments, new ways of doing things. We need time to learn to do it well,” she said “and, we’re doing this professional development on top of an already very demanding job.” 

Rothbard conducts twice-monthly trainings (one with just English teachers, and a second with English and history teachers who are jointly trying to improve student literacy and writing skills) on shortened school days. Each session lasts about 90 minutes after school. Yet Rothbard considers herself lucky because her school is dedicating all of its professional development time this year to the Common Core, a level of commitment not seen everywhere in Oakland. 

But the generally positive reviews that the Common Core has gotten from teachers don’t mean everyone is a fan. Not every English teacher is happy about the push for more nonfiction. “I’ve heard some gripes about it from teachers around the district,” she said, adding that was not much of an issue at her school.  

Some teachers are less than enthusiastic about the plan to periodically have all classes at each grade level teach the same book at the same time, so teachers can compare notes about their effectiveness. There’s also some uneasiness about the coming online assessments, partly because Skyline – and its 1,900 students – have less than ideal access to technology.

“At Skyline, we have 22 desktops in our library, and, as of last year, we reopened our computer lab with 32 desktops, and four laptop carts, each with 32 to 34 Chromebooks,” Rothbard said. But two of those carts are largely committed to remedial programs. “So that leaves the library, the computer lab and two laptop carts for all teachers to reserve for classroom purposes,” she said. “But we’re much better equipped with technology this year than in past years.”

Rothbard said she does her best to “monopolize” the computers available to her, but acknowledges that many of her kids need more time in front of a screen. “Some of our students have shockingly poor computer skills for being students one or two years away from being in college and the career world,” said Rothbard, who switched to teaching after years working for a nonprofit education-advocacy group. “It’s one of the biggest inequalities that students with more disadvantages face: a lack of access to computers. In this day and age, there should be one computer for every student. I am very passionate about that.” (At Skyline, about 68 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch.)

Her hope is that the online tests coming as part of the Common Core conversion will force school districts across the state to invest more in technology. “If the Common Core helps push the effort to meet that need, that would be amazing,” she said. 

After all, to Rothbard, the Common Core represents a promise of better opportunities for her students. 

“We’re always trying new things, and there is always some mistrust about whatever the new thing is,” she said as she wraps up for the day. “But on the whole, I think those who understand Common Core are pretty positive about it, and so far, I haven’t experienced any push back. I think one of the positives about this experience is that we’ve seen more consistency and progress than usual. But a lot remains to be seen.” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Pat Wingert

Pat Wingert, a recent Spencer Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School, has spent most of her career as a reporter at Newsweek magazine, specializing in education, health and investigative stories. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., for Newsweek, Wingert worked for both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. Most recently, she has written for Scientific American.