Elk Grove Unified sets the pace on common core

As the state struggles to bring common core curriculum standards into California classrooms, one district in the Sacramento region is well ahead of the curve in developing tools and resources needed to dramatically shift how students learn.

In fact, Elk Grove Unified School District plans to test its students midway through the coming school year to see how far they've progressed after a year and a half spent learning common core aligned-curriculum.

If early teacher feedback is any indication, the program appears to be accelerating pupil performance well ahead of the earliest proposed statewide transition in spring, 2015.

What we have learned is that implementation of math at the K-2 level was particularly challenging because it's significantly different," said Anne Zeman, director of Curriculum and Professional Learning at Elk Grove.

"But at the same time it is starting to become self-reinforcing" - that is, she noted, that after the first couple months of transition, teachers began reporting back to district officials positive results. "I had one teacher tell me, oh my gosh, I've never had a first grader be able to do something that advanced before.' "

Elk Grove began this school year teaching new math curriculum based on common core to all K-2 students. The new English language arts curriculum, which includes history and social science components, is being taught to all 3-6 graders.

Implementation of either new curriculum this year was optional at the district's middle and high schools but common core-aligned curriculum will be mandatory starting this fall, for all Elk Grove students. .

"It didn't creep up on us. As far back as the 2009-10 school year, we watched over what the state board of education was doing in terms of common core," said Zeman. "As soon as the state board adopted the standards in August of 2010, we knew we had to get busy."

It didn't hurt that one of the district's curriculum specialists, Mark Freathy, was on the state commission that finalized the common core standards in 2010 - or that 45 other states had or were in the process of adopting the uniform standards as well.

A national recession, combined with the sluggish bureaucracy and politics of setting education policy, had slowed California's implementation progress. Likewise, many school districts, suffering from the severe budget crisis, were struggling to survive, much less make a wholesale shift in academic instruction.

But Elk Grove, the fifth largest school district in California with 62,000 students and 3,100 teachers, forged ahead, setting priorities focused on switching to common core and shifting existing resources to match those choices.

Administrators and team leaders spent the 2010-11 school year learning as much as they could about the common core standards, and then began sharing their knowledge with teachers and staff through voluntary "awareness-raising" workshops that eventually morphed into mandatory training sessions.

In the spring of 2011, the district launched what it calls its common core blog, which is really more of a comprehensive website dedicated to providing resources and guidance to educators and parents to help them understand and teach the new standards.

As the 2011-12 school year dawned, Elk Grove was still teaching the California state standards but had its eye on the switching to common core based curriculum the next year.

So, the district launched its professional development campaign and set about securing new instructional materials and, perhaps most importantly, according to Zeman, the technology that is mandatory for a 21st Century education.

"Educators casually speak from a partial truth that we need the technology for the new assessments, but we need the technology for the teaching and learning and we need it on a daily basis," Zeman said.

For many districts, new technology has usually been an after-thought - something to purchase if there's leftover money after everything else has been paid for. Even with Elk Grove's funding commitment, she noted, the district is not where it needs to be on the technology front.

"Focusing on technology has helped, but it doesn't mean we have more money, it just means we have to cut it out from a different place," she said.

For its K-8 students the district has tried to purchase available common core-aligned texts, which are scarce, or has created its own by piecing together parts of existing materials that promote the new curriculum. Publishers nationwide are still scrambling to produce - and states to adopt - new textbooks and supplemental instructional materials.

Zeman said the flexibility given districts in 2009 over their budgets helped free up some funding for textbooks, but the district also has directed every dollar of federal education funding that it can to professional development, instructional materials and technology to bring common core to its students.

The key to successful implementation at any district, said the curriculum director, will first require a complete shift in teacher thinking as well as a collaborative effort between administration and school staff.

"We have to do this together. Teachers need tremendous support and we at the district level need teacher support," Zeman said. "Administrators have a dual role, also, in that we have to provide as much professional development as we can for the teachers but simultaneously we have to monitor their anxiety level and keep it at bay. It's in nobody's interest to flip anyone out over this."

Midway through next school year, Elk Grove will administer a pencil and paper assessment it designed to gauge student progress in the new standards, and make adjustments based on those results, said Zeman.

"It no longer makes sense to teach to the [California Standardized Tests]. We need to be educating these kids for the future and the common core is their future," said Zeman. "It's a pretty complex endeavor but it could be truly revolutionary in terms of American education - and I hope it is. But in a revolution, nothing comes easy - it takes a lot of hard work."

For more information on Elk Grove's transition to common core, or to find its online resources, visit http://blogs.egusd.net/ccss/

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