By Tom Torlakson and Michael Kirst
Across California, teachers, parents and school administrators are working to make the transition to the new Common Core state standards. They are asking an understandable question: Are schools ready?
Let’s be candid: California’s chronically underfunded education system has been put through the financial wringer in recent years. At the height of the fiscal crisis, more than 2 million students — one child in three — attended a school in financial jeopardy.
Deep cuts affected virtually every school, sending class sizes soaring and forcing layoffs of thousands of teachers, counselors, school librarians, custodians, bus drivers and administrators. The state even mothballed its process for adopting new textbooks.
Thanks to a well-earned vote of confidence from California’s voters — and their approval of Proposition 30 — the worst of the school funding crisis appears to be behind us. But it will take years to restore what our schools have lost.
Given these circumstances, it’s tempting to conclude that California should hold off on implementation of the Common Core and delay using new tests designed to assess how well students are meeting these new standards.
That would be a terrible mistake. Because, as important as school readiness for the next generation of tests is, student readiness for the demands of careers and college must take precedence. And giving our students the tools they need right now means moving as quickly as possible to implement the Common Core.
Inside the walls of our classrooms, we can debate the pace of change. But outside our schools, in the world of work our students continue to move into, there’s no sign that things are slowing down.
Basic skills employers once highly valued — reading comprehension, computational skills and the like — have become table stakes in the modern workplace. Without them, you’re not even in the game.
To succeed these days, it takes much, much more. Employers want workers who can think critically, tackle problems, communicate and collaborate — the very skills the Common Core was designed to teach.
That’s why California, along with 44 other states, adopted these standards in 2010. The state’s implementation plan, approved by the State Board of Education last year, provides support and technical assistance, but allows local teachers, principals and administrators to implement them in the way that best suits their local needs.
As challenging as this work is, it is taking place. A recent survey found that 87 percent of California school districts either already had an implementation plan in place or were in the process of creating one.
There are significant costs involved in training teachers, purchasing new materials and putting into place the technology needed to administer the new computer-based assessments that will replace California’s reliance on paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests.
We are working to make sure that appropriate resources, with flexibility for local decision making, are available to implement Common Core learning. Some funds can be shifted — refocusing training dollars, or buying new materials aligned to the Common Core instead of older materials. The state also can save millions of dollars if it suspends the use of outdated assessments next year to give schools time to gear up for the new exams in the spring of 2015.
The transition to these new standards is like a remodeling project for our schools. If you’ve lived through the process yourself, the analogy rings true. It starts with an incredible vision — like an architect’s renderings — of the things we want California’s children to know and be able to do. And like any remodeling project, the tough part is living with the dust and debris while the work goes on.
That’s where we are in California — and slowing down is the last thing our students need.
After all, the children who were in kindergarten when the Common Core standards were adopted are about to complete the third grade. Even with our best efforts, they’ll be finishing the fifth grade before they take their first end-of-year test on these new standards.
We must move forward now so that all children — no matter where they come from or where they live — receive a world-class education and graduate ready to contribute to the future of our state.
— Tom Torlakson is California’s state superintendent of public instruction. Michael Kirst is president of the California State Board of Education.