Merced, Calif., area high schools are among the first to adopt California's new common core instructional standards and two dozen local teachers are pioneering the system that's described as a new way of doing business.
Tammie Calzadillas, executive director of educational services for the Merced Union High School District, said 24 teachers at Merced, Atwater and Livingston campuses are early adopters of common core teaching practices.
One hundred teachers will start common core teaching in April.
"This is the first time in education I have seen a change in the way we do business," Calzadillas said.
"I personally think this is exciting," she continued. "It is a comprehensive approach to teaching students to problem-solve, think critically and analytically, to work in groups and come up with answers."
Common core must be implemented in all state schools in 2014-2015, Calzadillas said.
"Common core prepares them for life," Calzadillas said. "No Child Left Behind boxed us into right and wrong answers; this requires them to think and do something with their knowledge.
"We were letting the textbook guide everything we do and letting a fact-based test guide our instruction. Now we are asking them to read and understand and do something with it, and that's very different," she said.
Marc Parsons, a mathematics teacher at Golden Valley High School, said he is glad he decided to adopt the program early and that the experience has been invaluable.
"Most students are rising to the higher expectations inside the classroom, though the increased expectation of individual responsibility for learning outside the classroom has been a challenge to many," Parsons said.
These changes are for the good of both current and future students, Parsons said.
Teachers are working together to build common lessons, assess the success of instruction and know that students have mastered the new material, Calzadillas said.
Alex Orozco, a sophomore at Golden Valley High and an English student in common core early adopter Matt Thomas' class, said the new standards are more relevant to students' lives.
"The common core will better help me understand more about a certain subject. The difference is that the current California standards go a little too fast, and I am not able to learn as much from it. With common core, I learn more and it is nice and easy to understand for the students," Orozco said.
He thinks common core will change education by helping students be better prepared for college and for real life.
Leading other educators
Calzadillas is a former Merced middle school principal and Merced City School District administrator. She joined the Merced Union High School in July 2010 to work on implementing common core.
She said the Merced district is considered a pioneer in common core and its leaders are briefing other educators at seminars throughout the state about using the new approach.
"Students will be required to show they know the material," Calzadillas said. "We only have one chance to get it right. Being proactive has taken the fear out of it and has allowed us the time and flexibility to get a deep level of understanding."
Rachelle Mendes teaches at Merced High School and is using common core standards in her classes. She said it's a more engaging approach to teaching and learning.
"The common core state standards promote student learning through exploration and discovery," Mendes said. "With the new standards, the critical thinking is put on the students and the students are mastering transferrable skills, not just standards.
"The students are responsible for gathering the information and applying it to real-world situations and using that information to create relevant end products, versus the lecture-and-notes method we have used in the past," she said.
Students can take charge
Mendes said these standards change the face of teaching and learning because they cause students to take charge of their learning and allow them to see the importance of skills that will benefit them beyond high school.
Susana Murphy, a sophomore at Golden Valley High, said she likes having performance assessments rather than 100-question tests.
"It keeps you interested and it's fun at the same time," Murphy said. "I think it will make it better and a more accurate way to tell whether we pay attention or not in a short period of time."
Thomas, a teacher for five years, said this is by far his best year.
"These standards let me slow down and focus on a concept for a longer period of time and make sure my students have mastered it," Thomas said. "Also, they let me design engaging, relevant lessons for my students.
"My students know why this information is important and how it applies to their future, whether career or college," the English teacher said. "My students are investigating and thinking critically about real-world issues."
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