Common Core standards coming to Arizona schools

February 25, 2013
For a long time now, advocates have pushed for reform that would improve important benchmarks like this. Today, we begin a weeklong series called Educating Arizona that explores the challenges in our public school system - from the elementary to university level. KJZZ’s Mark Brodie starts off with a look at the new Common Core curriculum for English and math -- standards all public and charter schools must use by August of next year.

MARK BRODIE:  If you want to know what Common Core looks like, Erin Henderson’s sixth grade English Language Arts class at Kyrene Middle School in Tempe is a good place to start. Her district has started implementing the new standards, and she says the change is noticeable.

ERIN HENDERSON: It’s not a rote, memorize facts. It’s understanding why. So, while I will teach grammar, I need to teach students why grammar is the way it is, and how a sentence flows, and why things are related, as opposed to just ‘because I said so, this is the way it is.’

BRODIE: And, that’s pretty much Common Core in a nutshell. Many educators say the new standards mandate curricula that are an inch wide and a mile deep, rather than the old way, which has been described as a mile wide and an inch deep. In other words, Common Core aims to teach students to think, rather than memorize facts. And, educators describe the change using phrases like “momentous,” and “paradigm shift.”

GABRIEL TRUJILLO: You’ve been using your right hand your entire life, and you’re told now that you have to use your left for everything that you do.

BRODIE: Gabriel Trujillo is the Principal at Trevor Browne High School, in the Phoenix Union High School District. It’s another of the districts around the state that’s already implementing Common Core.

TRUJILLO: I think it’s an acknowledgement that we live in a whole new world. I think that it’s an acknowledgement that we’re sending this generation out into the digital age where everybody can become an author of their own content.

BRODIE: Arizona decided to join the Common Core standards in 2010. Nearly every state, and Washington, DC have signed on. Kathy Hrabluk, an Associate Superintendent with the Arizona Department of Education, says Common Core’s main goal – and you hear this phrase a lot - is to make sure students are college and career ready.

KATHY HRABLUK: What’s becoming now increasingly more important is that not only do we teach our students how to think, but that we teach them to be fluid in what they thought they understood yesterday, as new information becomes available.

BRODIE: To accomplish that, Common Core puts a much greater emphasis on non-fiction reading and writing, for example. Math students will be required to show how they got to the answer at the end of the formula, and why they used it in that particular equation, rather than just memorizing that A plus B equals C. Assistant Superintendent Steve Nance with the Higley Unified School District – another one that’s started implementing Common Core - says all professional development in his district has moved in that direction.

STEVE NANCE: In our minds, the implementation of the Common Core is the most important thing that we’re doing.

BRODIE: But, some administrators worry that the importance of the transition to Common Core doesn’t match the money allocated to reach that goal. Heather Cruz, Deputy Superintendent of the Peoria Unified School District, says her schools will also be fully implementing the new standards next year. She just hopes the legislature and Governor Brewer have schools’ backs in the process.

HEATHER CRUZ: She has goals for us as a state to bring world-class education to the state. I’m totally on board with that. However, that doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t come in a year.

BRODIE: In her budget proposal released last month, the governor called for more than $61 million for professional development, instructional materials aligned with Common Core and equipment that supports the new standards, and the test that goes along with them, called PARCC. But, it’s unclear how much money the legislature will spend. And some educators say even the governor’s proposal falls short of what they need. The Education Department’s Kathy Hrabluk says the state recognizes what schools are facing.

HRABLUK: We’re asking districts to move very quickly, with some very significant changes, while they are in business on a daily basis, with budgets that are tight.

BRODIE: That fast transition is due, at least in part, to another deadline. Students will start taking the PARCC test in 2015. Kyrene Middle School Principal Jama Nacke says that’s one of the reasons her district has already started the move to Common Core.

JAMA NACKE: Boy, if we started in ’14, we’d be so behind the eight ball. Right now, we’ve got our district doing summative assessments that are very similar to the PARCC questions, so the time our kids get to the PARCC questions, they’re gonna have seen them for two years, versus the kids who’ve never seen them before.

BRODIE: But even with a head start, some Arizona teachers have expressed concern that they won’t have enough training to teach the new standards. The Peoria District’s Heather Cruz says districts like hers are trying to set teachers - and students - up for success.

CRUZ: The teacher is that number one person that’s gonna make the difference with kids. We want to make sure they have everything they need in order to get the kids what they need.

BRODIE: Cruz, though, says it’s reasonable to expect a dip in performance as students adjust to the new standards. Erin Henderson, the sixth grade English teacher at Kyrene Middle School, agrees.

HENDERSON: I think students are going to hit bumps, because they’re learning in ways they haven’t learned before, and they’re thinking differently than they have thought before.

BRODIE: Henderson says to mitigate that, she and her colleagues will have to collaborate more - that’s something a lot of educators are saying. The eleven-year classroom veteran compares moving to the Common Core standards to being a first-year teacher all over again.

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