NEWPORT BEACH – Orange County education leaders expressed optimism Thursday that underperforming and special-needs students could have a better shot at catching up to their peers under a new set of national curriculum standards being gradually phased into K-12 classrooms.
At a county forum to discuss the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, officials said the streamlined instructional standards that students will soon be expected to master could make it easier for schools to level the playing field for everyone.
"With fewer common core standards, we maybe have a chance to close that gap (that starts as early as) kindergarten," said panelist Sherry Kropp, superintendent of the Los Alamitos Unified School District. "I just think we can do it; we just haven't figured out how for all kids yet."
Thursday's three-hour forum in Newport Beach, called "Transformational Change in Education," brought together local business, education and community leaders to discuss the Common Core State Standards, a new teaching strategy that emphasizes big-picture, conceptual understandings and working collaboratively to develop greater mastery of topics.
The common core standards for English and math are being rolled out over the next two years across California and most other U.S. states. In spring 2015, California is expected to overhaul its standardized testing program to align with the new standards.
Keynote speaker David Coleman, president of the New York-based College Board company that develops the SAT and other exams, explained that "slowing down" and simplifying what educators are expected to teach – hallmarks of the common-core approach – are logical strategies to help struggling students.
"The common core standards aren't a miracle drug that will let kids leap to suddenly being ready" for college and careers, said Coleman, an architect of the common core, but "even for kids who are behind, the solution is still to slow down."
School officials also reiterated Thursday that the common-core approach would be good for all students.
Even among high-achievers, it's common knowledge that the amount of information students are expected to master is so vast that they won't retain much of it in the long term, officials said.
Students also are matriculating to colleges and careers without skills that they need – chiefly, Coleman said, the ability to read and write "sufficiently rigorous" nonfiction texts, and then to build and synthesize knowledge from those texts.
"What we all know is good teaching is going deep, understanding the relevance of what they're learning," said panelist Terry Walker, superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District. "This isn't something new. We know what good instruction looks like."
Meanwhile, the new common-core standardized tests that will be developed in the coming years are expected to be aligned so closely with college proficiency standards that some colleges may use them as admissions factors, said presenter Demaree Michelau, policy analysis director for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
"The test isn't designed to be an admissions exam, but it might be used for that when it's done," Michelau said.
Panelists acknowledged Thursday they would face enormous challenges educating the public that common core was not just the latest fad in public education.
"It's important that we don't let this be another No Child Left Behind," said Capistrano Unified Superintendent Joe Farley, referring to the much-maligned federal school-accountability law. "We need to embrace it so we are fundamentally changing how we teach."
The uphill battle to fight rumors and myths about common core also could prove difficult, panelists said.
In recent months, rampant speculation among common-core skeptics has suggested that fiction classics such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" could be replaced with nonfiction technical texts.
A goal of common core is indeed to reduce the portion of fiction books in U.S. classrooms (down to about half), but also to bring up the overall number of texts that students read, common-core proponents say. As more analytical reading is emphasized in science and social studies classrooms, more fiction books can remain in English classrooms, common-core architects point out.
"It doesn't strip literature," Kropp said Thursday, explaining that certain fiction books "that are about our history and culture" would remain in the curriculum.
Even so, she questioned whether the elimination of some fictional texts would be a bad thing: "It gets to what is the purpose of public education."
Panelist Wallace Walrod, chief economic adviser for the Orange County Business Council, looked at common core from a practical standpoint, noting that the world was changing and public education would need to adapt.
"Maybe in some ways we've been setting up our system for failure instead of setting (our students) up for success, which is what business tries to do," Walrod said.
"We're in a global landscape, and our businesses are competing globally for talent. This seems like a good first step and a path forward for me."
Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @MartindaleScott