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Contra Costa County school districts prepare to implement Common Core standards

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 8:47 pm in Education, Lafayette school district, Martinez school district, Mt. Diablo school district, Pittsburg school district, West Contra Costa school district.

In case you haven’t heard yet, there are big changes coming to your child’s classroom in the next two years.

Just when everyone was used to STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) assessments that cover hundreds of curriculum standards in math and English language arts, California jumped on a nationwide bandwagon to implement standards and tests that will be consistent from one state to another.

Called Common Core Standards, the new curriculum requirements are being eagerly embraced by many educators, who say they are the answer to complaints they had with No Child Left Behind.

Instead of whizzing through numerous lessons at breakneck speed without delving into any deeply, educators will soon be freed to slow down and encourage high-level discussions with their students about what they are learning. This is exciting to some, but scary to others, who aren’t sure how this will change they way they now teach.

To help educators sort all of this out, the Contra Costa County Office of Education hosted a two-day Common Core State Standards Summit earlier this week. About 400 people attended, including many hungry for information and a few dozen presenters who shared their early attempts at easing into the new standards.

“The shifts and issues associated with transition and implementation of the Common Core Standards are intertwined with all areas of instruction and assessment,” County Superintendent Joe Ovick wrote in his program introduction. “Implemented well, they give teachers the opportunity to reclaim their creativity in the classroom while strengthening the learning process and increasing outcomes for students.”

The key part of that sentence is: “implemented well.” And that’s the part teachers are struggling to accomplish.

Many experts came to their rescue, delivering presentations about how to implement the math standards, assessing literacy and designing lessons for the standards, facilitating close reading of complex texts, using creativity to engage learners, and effective teaching strategies.

Presenters also included several educators and administrators from local districts, who talked about what they’re doing to prepare teachers for the dramatic changes to come.

A Lafayette assistant superintendent, math coach and two literacy coaches shared lessons they’ve learned as they’ve begun to implement the new standards, along with challenges they’ve have faced. In a similar session, administrators from the Castro Valley, Pittsburg, San Ramon Valley and West Contra Costa districts discussed the first steps they’ve taken to introduce the standards to teachers.

But, some presentations dug deeper. A San Ramon Valley teacher and a reading specialist discussed ways to guide 4th and 5th graders to write like researchers and essayists, in a talk focused on “argument writing.” In another, a curriculum coordinator from San Ramon Valley showed teachers how to use texts to build students’ inquiry and critical thinking skills by exposing them to multiple perspectives.

A Mt. Diablo district principal shared strategies for ensuring that English learners will be able to comprehend complex texts and read, write and research subjects such as history, science and technical subjects.

I sat in on a presentation by Audrey Lee, director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology for the Martinez district. Educators there are already adapting their teaching to the new requirements in five ways, she said.

These are: reading more nonfiction texts; teaching academic vocabulary (such as “deduce” or “hyperbole”); increasing expository writing in all subject areas; using technology to connect, collaborate, research, explore, synthesize, and present information; and asking open-ended questions, such as “Why do you think that?”

Lee laid out the challenge to districts, as they try to build buy-in, with this quote from author Lucy Calkins: “You can view the standards as a curmudgeon or as if they are gold.”

“I hope,” Lee said, “that you will look on these standards as if they are gold.”

More information about the summit is at

Do you think Common Core Standards will benefit California’s students?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

34 Responses to “Contra Costa County school districts prepare to implement Common Core standards”

  1. Flippin' Tired Says:

    This should change the perception that teachers are only teaching to the test.

    However, when you say “the Contra Costa County Office of Education hosted a two-day Common Core State Standards Summit.” that’s a bit misleading. Schools paid $110 per person for each attendee. This wasn’t free or even paid for by the district, it came out of site funds.

  2. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Thanks for pointing that out. It seemed that it was geared to administrators, although there were many educators who attended, as well. It would seem that SASS should be leading this effort for MDUSD.

  3. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#2 As I pointed out earlier, the Directors of Secondary and Elementary in MDUSD were not even present and they were tasked many months ago to develop the “district plan” for implementation. Instead, Rose Lock attended along with a couple of “principal coaches” — district paid. School administrators and teachers [more substitutes] as FT points out were paid from site funds — except for the substitutes, which comes from the district general fund. Who is teaching the common core to the schools ? What is the plan ?

  4. The Observer Says:

    MDUSD needs to to address its rapidly sinking schools. In the past six years the public has seen graduation requirements lowered, high schools in the lowest decile of similar schools, and their best and brightest teachers and administrators fleeing the district.As one former administrator told me last week, the fear and incompetence level reached such a peak that he had to leave despite the fact he was a MDUSD student from K-12.
    ” I wanted to help improve student learning, empower teachers, and work with the community but it was a losing proposition. No one at Dent cared and I got no support.”

    Pretty sad state of affairs.

  5. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Observer: As I mentioned in my story about the WCCUSD effort to turn around Kennedy HS, the WestEd turnaround expert I interviewed said that support is critical to successful improvement efforts — not only from the district office, but from the community. Also, he said that everyone must believe that students and staff can grow, learn and improve. When faced with low expectations and lack of support, improvement efforts fizzle and everyone becomes discouraged and begins to play the blame game.

    Again, I point to CVCHS — which similarly felt stifled and unsupported by the MDUSD district office. But at that school, the people who wanted to improve it banded together and are trying to make it happen as a charter, free of MDUSD.

    If the administrator to whom you are referencing would be willing to talk to me about the lack of support he or she received, please ask him or her to call me.

    Although Board President Sherry Whitmarsh has said one of her highest priorities is attracting and retaining high quality staff, it’s unclear what is being done in MDUSD to accomplish that goal.

    Dr. J: It appears that some districts throughout the state are “early implementers,” who are pioneering efforts to plan, transition and implement the Common Core standards. I also attended an Education Writers Assoc. workshop in LA that included presenters from Long Beach, Sac City, Oakland and San Francisco talking about their early implementation efforts.

    Lee, in Martinez, said teachers are tending to respond in one of three ways to news about the new standards: some are very interested and eager to find out more so they can start implementing changes now; some are standing by, waiting to be told what to do; and some don’t really believe that change will happen, because they have become cynical, based on other promised changes that haven’t come to fruition.

    Districts appear to fall into these same three categories. Some are leaders, some are followers, and some look the other way until it’s nearly too late, then have to scramble to catch up. Which category does MDUSD fall into?

    In Martinez, Lee said her superintendent asked her to come up with an implementation plan in 2010, as soon as the state adopted Common Core. She said she looked around to see what others had done and found that no one had plans she could copy, so she forged ahead and created one of her own, which she is now sharing with other districts that are desperately searching for advice.

  6. Jim Says:

    There is almost no reason to believe that implementation of Common Core standards in CA will improve our student outcomes. People forget that, despite the general train wreck that public education has become in CA, we actually had some of the best state curriculum standards in the country (arrived at after many years of wailing and gnashing of teeth from all the interest groups involved). The new Common Core standards may raise the bar in Louisiana or S. Carolina, but they do not represent a significant improvement for CA (or MA or many other states that already had fine standards). Read them side-by side. The jargon has changed, and there are a few improvements (more non-fiction reading, more writing), but those are all things that good educators were already trying to do anyway.

    So why all the fuss? Money, of course. States are getting federal aid to transition to CC. (And my guess is that as soon as those funds dry up, as they will, states will start “tweaking” their common standards again.) And the job of the three education conglomerates that constitute the national curriculum oligopoly will become immensely easier, and therefore more profitable, since they certainly don’t ever lower their prices. (Standard forumla is to raise prices at twice the rate of inflation — coincidentally, the same formula employed by so many colleges for tuition increases. BTW, of the three companies that dominate two-thirds of the K-12 market — Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw Hill, only the last is still US-owned.)

    CC will clearly stimulate demand for new K12 curriculum materials — in all subjects, everywhere. (Throw out those science textbooks! Photosynthesis has changed!) Second, those companies will no longer need to produce customized versions of their materials for the 10-20 states that had the size and power to demand it. There will still be the wining and dining of the state officials to make sure a company’s materials get a coveted place on state lists of “approved” materials — so that graft will continue — but the curriculum companies won’t have to produce separate versions of their products, resulting in a huge cost savings. They won’t have to pay for separate panels of “experts” in each major state to “co-edit and bless” their textbooks (alas, a major loss of payola to the educators in those state ed establishments).

    CC really is great news for ed conglomerates and their foreign shareholders. But for students in nearly-bankrupt CA? Not so much.

  7. Anon Says:


  8. The Observer Says:


    Well said

  9. Doctor J Says:

    Nice summary Jim. @TH#5 School Districts are like cars: some are self-starters; some need a jump start; and some just have to be towed in. Who are the leaders in MDUSD that can make it a self Starter ? Right now its being towed to the salvage yard.

  10. The Observer Says:

    The expression is “The world is made up of those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and the rest who wonder what the hell happened.” The corollary is “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. Now, the game is to name the district people who fit each category. The answers will tell you what kind of district we have and why we are in the trouble we’re in.

  11. Jim Says:

    The other thing that deserves mention with respect to Common Core is that it almost ignores the needs of English Language Learners, the fastest growing student sub-population in the country. As I recall, the CC standards said something like “addressing the needs of ELLs is beyond the scope of the Standards”. So, the needs of 25% of CA students (using a strict definition) and up to 50% of them (using a more functional definition) are simply “beyond the scope” of these expensive new standards. Terrific.

    CA’s current English Language Arts/English Language Development (ELA/ELD) standards are among the most thorough in the country, AND they are well-integrated with the mainstream ELA standards, which is not easy to do. CA developed these leading standards because of the immense, long-building demographic pressures on our educational system and the recognition among almost everyone that we had to do a better job. This is an area where the rest of the country — even Texas sometimes! — looked to our leadership in setting goals for ELLs. (They don’t look to us as far as how we actually try to meet the goals — we are still generally regarded as a basket case when it comes to implementation and execution — but the goals and standards were first rate.) But now, it is not clear how all that is going to be handled under the Common Core. Yet this is one of the biggest tasks facing the CA education system: if we can’t bring our ELL students to a high level of English language proficiency, there is NO way they can participate very productively in our 21st Century economy. We can’t ignore them. There literally aren’t enough other young people to take up the slack.

  12. High school teacher Says:

    Let’s not forget that California has chosen to add in the full 15% additional standards allowed. So although the intent is to teach fewer standards to a deeper level of mastery, California teachers are still responsible for teaching much more. So again, our standards are higher than any other state, but our results will still fall far below the rest if the country.

  13. Doctor J Says:

    @Jim, the obverse of the ELL issue you identify, is that in MDUSD “English only” learners are being ignored under the new Steven Lawrence EL Master Plan. While the ELL’s are being immersed in English, the English Only children are DAILY losing valuable instructional time while being ignored. Here we are in November, and EO students have lots hundreds of hours of instructional time. Teachers have to choose to either teach the ELL’s and ignore the EO’s or teach the EO’s and ignore the ELL’s. Huge problem that won’t be evident until next year’s test scores show devasating results for the EO population. Especially significant since Lawrence’s disbursal plan of ELL’s to neighboring schools is in full swing. Here is the “final solution” given to the Board just in case you have a little insomnia:

  14. Doctor J Says:

    See Page 27: “Daily, leveled ELD instruction — minumun of 30 minutes not to include passing time.” “Sites are encouraged to consider longer ELD instruction to meet student needs . .” So what do the “English Only” students do during this 30-60+ minutes DAILY ? Twiddle their thumbs ? How much instruction time have the English Only students lost to date ? Will lose for the entire school year ?

  15. Flippin' Tired Says:

    “Doctor” J, have you ever been to a school site? When the English Language Learners are having intense instruction time, the children who only speak English are getting even more intense instruction!

    Get out from behind your desk at Dent and visit a school site. Go to any one of the schools where STAR scores have gone up.

    I’m no fan of the superintendent, but you’re wrong when you say English Only kids are being ignored.

  16. anon Says:

    Please tell us what you are referring to when you state that EO’s are getting even more instruction. My experience has been that EO’s are getting “busy” work, as the ELL’s are getting small group or even one on one with the teacher.
    I would like some specifics please. Not trying to be antagonistic, just genuinely curious.

  17. Jim Says:

    I’d be curious to know how much training MDUSD teachers typically receive in working with ELLs. (Understanding that the need is greater at some schools than at others.) It is not just a matter of having time and having the right materials, although those factors are also important, of course. ELL instruction is not something that comes naturally to most teachers. A few years ago, when I was involved in the creation of materials for ELLs, we did a national survey of teachers in our database. Almost 90% had had an ELL in his/her classroom within the last two years, yet only about 11% had EVER had ANY training in teaching English Language Development to non-native English speakers. And that sample included a lot of districts that spend more than we do here in CA on professional development. It makes me wonder how prepared MDUSD teachers are to do what is being asked of them.

  18. Flippin' Tired Says:

    Anon @16, are you on a campus, do you actually SEE what’s going on? Every elementary school is required to set aside “sacred time” for ELL students to get specialized instruction. During that time they rotate out to teachers who can give that kind of instruction. The EO students are grouped by abilities and they are able to go deeper into the current Language Arts curriculum. If anything, EO kids are getting more/better instruction, and the ELL kids are getting the help they need to bring them up to speed. If you are seeing EO kids only getting busy work, then you’re in the wrong school.

    Ask any of the Title 1 schools who kicked ass during the last round of STAR testing, they’ll show you: See how the subgroups, especially ELL kids, are progressing.

    There is a lot wrong with this district, but there is a lot that’s going right. I credit the site admins, teachers, parents and students for making such great strides. The students grow and learn despite the Dent and their unearned raises.

  19. Jim Says:

    @18 FT — Where, in the link you provided, was there any info at all on subgroups like ELLs?

    This is the aggregate info that is on the district site. The disaggregated data may be on the district site somewhere, but they don’t make it easy. At least, I have yet to find it.

  20. Flippin' Tired Says:

    The link only shows Bel Air, El Monte, Fair Oaks, Rio Vista and Shore Acres are all Title 1 schools that made great leaps in STAR scores. I know how well my kids’ school is doing because the principal likes to share that kind of good news with the community.

    You’ll have to ask the schools themselves for the subgroup breakdowns. The district doesn’t see fit to update the individual school websites. The info I see is from 2009. TIS is up to their hips in work and not enough people to do it.

  21. Doctor J Says:

    FT go to the source, not the edited version !

  22. Theresa Harrington Says:

    FT, As Dr. J points out, you can go directly to the CDE for up-to-date information, which shows that all of the schools featured in the MDUSD Powerpoint except Delta View met their API subgroup goals. Delta View made its ELL subgroup goal, but failed to meet goals in other subgroups:

    While it’s wonderful to point out successes, the district should also focus on schools that didn’t meet goals and candidly discuss what is being done to improve them. Schools that didn’t meet API subgroup goals were: Ayers, Cambridge, Delta View, Gregory Gardens, Silverwood, Westwood, YV Elementary, Oak Grove MS, Pine Hollow MS, Pleasant Hill MS, Riverview MS, Sequoia MS, Valley View MS, Clayton Valley HS, Mt. Diablo HS, Ygnacio Valley HS, Nueva Vista Cont. HS, Olympic Cont. HS, and Summit Cont. HS.

    In addition, Sun Terrace was not counted, since its demographics changed dramatically. However, its API report shows that English Learners scored substantially lower than students schoolwide, with ELLs garnering an API of 712, compared to a schoolwide score of 737:

    Overall, 27 MDUSD schools met API subgroup goals and 20 did not. So, while MDUSD has a lot to celebrate and many examples of educators who are doing things right, it also has more work to do and several examples of schools where students are not making adequate gains.

    The public deserves to see both sides of this story, instead of a one-sided presentation that only highlights accomplishments, while failing to address weaknesses.

    Also, it’s important to differentiate between meeting API subgroup goals compared to meeting AYP (NCLB) subgroup goals. MDUSD met all of its API subgroup goals:
    But, it failed to meet all of its AYP subgroup goals, which is why it’s in Program Improvement:

    To meet NCLB requirements (and avoid Program Improvement), about 78 percent of students were supposed to show proficiency in English language arts and math. Instead, about 61 percent districtwide were proficient in both subjects.

    But the ELL numbers were much lower, with about 34 percent proficient in English language arts and 44.5 percent proficient in math. ELL students also narrowly missed the NCLB graduation target of 56.2 percent, with just 55.1 percent graduating. Districtwide, however, students exceeded the overall graduation target of 76.6 percent, with 81.8 percent graduating. Next year’s target is 83 percent, so the district will have to improve its overall graduation rates this year, if it hopes to meet that goal.

  23. Doctor J Says:

    If you went to the doctor and s/he only concentrated on the things that were good, and ignored the negatives, your health would not be improving and you would be at risk. Example: Dr. to Patient: Your toenails look great and I think the fungus is gone. Patient to Dr: But I am having these chest pains. Dr to Paitent: We will see if they go away at next year’s physical. Would any of us think that is acceptable ? No way. Theresa’s analysis in #22 is good except for one thing — just because a school meets its API goals and sub-group goals, there are still students in those schools that are “underperforming” their potential who can achieve more. Everyone of the 47 schools can do better — for the betterment of the children. STAR tests are more like a thermometer than an EKG.

  24. Theresa Harrington Says:

    It’s also important to note that according to the AYP data, 30 percent of MDUSD students tested were English language learners (5,962 of 19,779 students). This is a subgroup the district needs to address quickly and efficiently.
    The ELL Master Plan is being implemented this year. Spring STAR test results will show whether it makes a measurable difference.

  25. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#24 ALL groups need to be concentrated on — what good is it if you solve the toenail fungus and ignore the chest pains ? The problem in MDUSD is the management by crisis, instead of a comprehensive Strategic Plan — and please don’t call what the Board adopted a “Strategic Plan” — not.

  26. Theresa Harrington Says:

    One thing that I’ve noticed when I’ve attended school improvement workshops and covered teachers of the year is the importance of staff’s belief that all students can succeed and their commitment to actually caring about each student.

    Can increased professional development compel all teachers to care about students and believe they can all succeed? Notice how often these ideas came up in the Powerpoint:

    Bel Air cited “Rigorous instructional program”
    El Monte cited: “Collaborative, student-centered culture where EVERYONE is focused on students feeling safe.”
    Fair Oaks cited: “Consistent use of BEST practices.”
    Valle Verde cited: “A belief that ‘They are all our kids.'”
    Wren Avenue cited: “Learning together.”
    Diablo View MS cited: “Very strong collaborative teams that believe all students can achieve at a high level” and “Culture of high expectations and supporting students in academic, social and emotional growth”
    Concord HS cited: “United staff belief in student success.”

    Shouldn’t EVERY MDUSD school staff have high expectations and believe that all students can succeed? If not, why not?

  27. Flippin' Tired Says:

    So we shouldn’t celebrate success, we should only focus on what’s wrong? Yes, every school should have committed staff and parents with high expectations. Just because some sites don’t, we can’t admire and applaud those who do? Ask those who show success to teach others. Wait, that would take them away from their school sites. Want staff to keep up to date on the latest/greatest methods? Yes, but they can’t be out of the classroom. You want principals to teach teachers? Yes, but you’ll grouse that they spend too much time off campus and not enough time on discipline. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. There is just no pleasing some people.

  28. Theresa Harrington Says:

    MDUSD is offering assistance Tuesday to immigrants seeking information on deferred action:

  29. Doctor J Says:

    Steven Lawrence assisting illegal immigrants at district property: Willow Creek. What an amazing turn around.

  30. anon Says:

    Who is providing the childcare, and how are they being compensated?

  31. Doctor J Says:

    Using improving test scores to honor both individual students and individual teachers[75% Gainers Club] –and to identify teachers with persistently low test scores[50% and below] — reward the “best” teachers with “extra pay”: “educators whose classes registered low test scores can’t apply to teach after-hours tutorials designed to help the district’s most under-performing students. Only teachers in the 75 Percent Gainers Club can take those positions, which come with extra pay.” It not just honoring the “top” students, but those who “improve”: “At the ceremony held in September, guests burst into applause when the principal named a girl whose scores went from below basic to basic.” Why didn’t Steven Lawrence think of this ? Chula Vista has many parallels with MDUSD — EXCEPT when you compare the API scores: Chula Vista rose in API in 2006 from 767 to 870 in 2012; MDUSD had API in 2006 of 747 and “rose” to 793 in 2012. Chula Vista +103 points. MDUSD +46 points. Pathetic. Its refreshing to see what Chula Vista did with a “plan” for the last six years. Its nauseating to see what MDUSD hasn’t done since it has had no plan. I hope the new Board steps up immediately and sets in motion a “real plan” and finds leadership to implement it. Read about Chula Vista.

  32. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I just listened to a webinar for education writers this morning about the importance of school counselors in getting student outcomes such as increased attendance, participation in AP courses and college and career readiness. But, MDUSD doesn’t have counselors districtwide. Instead, administrators who may not be trained as counselors are expected to provide critical interventions in MDUSD.

  33. Doctor J Says:

    This principal has pulled TWO schools out of program improvement — how did she do it ? Steven Lawrence you had better figure it out, and quick ! Is Steven Lawrence afraid to do this ? “Lewis was asked to make big changes at Whitehead, including replacing much of the staff. “It was very difficult,” she said. Some teachers opted to leave on their own; others were moved to other schools, said the principal. Lewis visited district classrooms and handpicked replacement teachers. Most, she said, weren’t that excited about being tapped for the low-performing school.
    Lewis wanted a staff that believed students could learn no matter their circumstances outside of school. “There are lots of things that are out of our control,” she said. “But when we are here we have control.”

  34. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is a new blog post that includes the letter from State Superintendent Tom Torklakson to the governor and Legislature, laying out his recommendations for aligning testing to the Common Core Curriculum Standards:

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