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New Standards: A ‘New Renaissance’ For Learning?

Sonora, CA – Once the caboose, local public educators are training to be the engines that drive student learning under the Common Core New Standards.

So says Tuolumne County Schools Superintendent Margie Bulkin, who indicates that, clearly, it’s about time. As she points out, “We are a state and county where our performance in math is average or below average. That has to tell us a message that the way we have been teaching math over the last decades has not yielded the outcomes that we may have wanted.”

One focus of the Common Core is the reshuffling of math concepts to create better flow of conceptualized math and its basic building blocks. Another key feature, according to Bulkin, is building literacy across all the subjects taught. The New Standards also purport to provide students with a stronger foundation to prepare them for successful, gainful employment or higher education.

Currently, the state has set milestones over a seven-year period to adopt New Standards, to make it affordable for school districts. As mathematics has been widely seen as needing a greater degree of future development in learning and teaching, it was the first subject set for implementation. Now in the process of adopting a new teaching system for language arts, the county will shortly address its approach to adopting one for next-generation science. All areas are mandated to integrate a Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) learning approach.

Teacher Quality Counts

According to Bulkin, Tuolumne County schools is now in year one of implementing its chosen Eureka math program across the school system and expects to have measurable results to report in another school year. In the meantime, she says, a major focus, beyond ensuring a consistent teaching program, is on teacher quality and training.

The New Standards requires a degree of re-orientation for teachers, as Bulkin explains, to ensure that they have a firm grasp on which specific building blocks of learning they are now responsible for teaching their students. Investing towards teachers’ professional development includes the contemporary approach of “flipped classroom” learning, which she says focuses on keeping the “heavy lifting” of student learning in the classroom, not as assigned homework.

How are students learning math under the new system? While too soon for summative assessments, Bulkin explains that there is a distinct move away from “bubble-in” answer testing. “We’re learning about the failures of an exclusively summative system, complementing it with formative assessments…it’s about both teacher and student outcome. We are learning to incorporate formative ‘snapshot’ assessments…as learning happens…to work towards every child being successful.”

Addressing past criticisms of “new math,” Bulkin states,“I think that, what is ‘new and improved’ about our approach to the unfolding of math concepts across the grade levels is that students…will develop the basic foundation and skills for computation and algorithms to solve complex equations…and that those skills are built early, in elementary school.”

Getting Students Past the ‘Gatekeeper’

Algebra, traditionally, known by educators as the “great gatekeeper,” tends to be a challenge for many students to grasp, Bulkin says. By teaching it earlier in a more integrated fashion, instructors will be able to build student learning so that skills are strongest when they reach ninth grade.

What is “new,” Bulkin says, is this: “We are integrating those skills in a more robust fashion, in earlier grades, so that students have a stronger foundation…and hopefully, they can bust open the ‘algebra door’ — get to higher level math – and be more competitive to higher learning, where math and calculus and statistics are all foundational skills. Those have not traditionally been areas where, across California — and Tuoulumne County being no exception — where students have excelled. And so, the restructuring of the way we are teaching math has probably been a long time coming.”

Looking ahead, Bulkin says, with a chuckle, “We want children to say, ‘I’m not good at math yet, if they say it at all. It has been second fiddle to language arts. Now that it is equal, we want children to be prepared, in case they want to go on to higher math.”

So far, Bulkin says that feedback from teachers employing their new teaching skills for learning indicates that it results in more engaged student expression, information exchange and classroom participation.

With the Common Core education system a hot topic in several states, how are parents locally adjusting to these new approaches in this first year of New Standards? In addition to new ways of arriving at an answer to a math computation, Bulkin muses: “What [parental] frustrations I’ve seen, if any, are due to past demands on [student] homework.” With the emphasis on foundational learning in the classroom — and students bringing less complex assignments back home after school — teachers now need to communicate to parents their value more as advocates and re-enforcers of classroom learning concepts.”

Setting Higher Post-High School Sights

So, in addition to implementing the New Standards, Bulkin says plans are for county high schools to work more closely with the community college, to “brand and blend” certification program offerings, so that interested students are able to transition from high school into one or two-year programs, such as office and fire technology or emergency medical services.

“A good many of our students go straight into employment, and if we can assist students to get certifications, that will help them gain higher wage jobs through the community college system through the CTE programs that they have,” she states. “We really want to fortify those efforts of looking how to counsel our seniors into higher education or certificate programs, so that they can gain jobs and continue to grow in those jobs.”

These are exciting times for local public education, Bulkin enthuses. “We’re in the greatest Renaissance we have ever seen with education,” she states. “We have New Standards, we have a new math curriculum. We are adopting a new language arts curriculum. We are going to adopt next gen science curriculum. We are integrating technology. We have never seen this wave of change in our generation or the generation before us…to become the engine… that’s driving this ‘train’ of producing really good potential in our people.”