Ready or not, here come the Common Core standards. In many schools, they’re already here.

Thanks to parent advocacy groups and news outlets like KPBS, which have covered the roll-out extensively, you might already have the gist: After governors and education leaders initiated the Common Core movement, teachers and content experts helped write new standards in math and English that weigh critical thinking skills above rote memorization.

California is one of 45 states that have voluntarily adopted the new standards. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown earmarked $1.25 billion to help California school districts make the transition. And in classrooms across San Diego County, the shift is under way.

But if you’re like most people, you probably still have some questions: If you’re a teacher, what will this do to your lesson plans? If you’re a parent, how will this affect your kid? And if you’re a student: Like, what tests are you going to have to take?

First, to the students: The old fill-in-the-bubble tests, the kind you used for the California Standards Tests, are gone for the time being. (A few grades will still be taking portions of the CST, as well as those who need the tests for college admissions purposes.)

Otherwise, 11th graders and students in grades 3-8 will be trying out the new Smarter Balanced Test this spring. Don’t sweat too hard; this year will be a pilot. (You might want to practice, though. It looks kind of tough). Next spring, the district plans to be at full speed.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

And parents who try to help their kids with homework might find that they’re the ones who are stuck. Rachel Laing, whose daughter is a third grader at Loma Portal Elementary, said, “Common Core sounds like a good idea, and I want to embrace it. But sometimes I’m looking at her homework and I have no idea what I’m seeing.”


— Rachel Laing (@RachelLaing) January 22, 2014

As for teachers, you’ve got your work cut out for you, too. But you probably already know that. Because there’s so much to unpack, I enlisted Paula Cordeiro, professor and dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego, to help me sort it out.

Cordeiro and her department staff help train future teachers, and work with students who come back to school for graduate degrees. Here’s a portion of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

There are some big changes coming down the pike. Lots of parents are concerned about Common Core and worry the new Smarter Balanced tests …  

They are and they should. These are big changes. The teachers are concerned, too. Teachers haven’t been prepared for the Common Core. But you’ve got to invest in them.

I had 19 San Diego Unified teachers in my class this fall. All 19 of them, when I said, “Tell me about the Common Core, how are you feeling about it?” All of them felt (Common Core) had potential. There was a continuum, but nobody said, “Throw it out.” So they all know that it’s good stuff. It’s just that they all don’t know how to implement it. They need help.

What are we talking about when we talk about Common Core? I think a lot of people are struggling with that.

The new standards that are built into that curriculum are getting into critical thinking far more deeply — problem-solving. That also means the pedagogy of the teachers has to change. In high school, a lecture is not going to get you to the critical thinking.

So the way that I teach has to change if I’m going to deliver that curriculum. And I have to use technology to do it, too.

We gave every student in our program an iPad. So that for the two years they’re in the program they can start using technology. For everything we do in the program, we don’t want them to use paper. And we did that because we expect them, as school principals, as classroom teachers, to be using technology to do their work.

Some of the other districts are better than San Diego Unified. More knowledgeable. Some are farther behind. Certain schools in San Diego Unified are really good and already using technology to teach the Common Core well. Others aren’t. There’s a great disparity from school to school.

Is Common Core changing the way that you’re preparing future teachers?

You bet. Oh, yeah. Our teacher education program, our Learning and Teaching department faculty had to get trained in Common Core. It’s a trickle-down. So now our faculty — I hope —are all comfortable. And now they’re writing textbooks and building the standards into the books that they’re writing.

There’s a lot that has to change in a short amount of time.

Very short. And that’s the other thing. There’s a lot of change taking place.

Managing all this change (for San Diego Unified) will be Cindy Marten’s job. Cindy’s having a panel, which we’re invited to, because she’s concerned about the teacher pipeline and what universities are doing to prepare teachers. We’re all different at universities; some of us do a better job than others. And it’s up to the school districts to say, “You gotta do this and you gotta do that because your students aren’t prepared.” So I love it that she’s calling a meeting.

Is it a situation where Common Core’s coming and you say to teachers, “OK, forget everything you know. This is how you should be teaching?”

To a certain degree. I mean, if I’m a high school science teacher, I still have the content knowledge. But, before I was working with standards that weren’t requiring me to ask my students to demonstrate it in this way. So now they’re being asked to think really critically. To compare this, and to compare that. Whereas before, I could have used a multiple-choice test. Now, the kinds of experiments that they’re doing, or the projects that I have them do, are going to have to be much, much deeper. So my pedagogy has to be different.

What are some of the problems that might come up in the rollout?

Well, we’re all insecure when we have to change things. So, if I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I’ve been doing science in this way and now I have these standards, first I have to know what the standards are, so I have to learn them. Then, all those lessons that I’ve developed over the years — I’ve got to teach them differently because the objectives have to be done differently. That’s a lot of work.

Are you going to give me time? Are you going to give me training? And, I’ve never done it that way before. I’m going to be nervous. Because you’re my principal, I’m not going to tell you I’m nervous. Or you might be my colleague in the next room and I’m not going to tell you, either. So it’s scary. You’re insecure.

My students were insecure. They told me, and they’re doing it, but it’s all different. I had them doing a project in class and the project required them to use a lot of technology, and they said, “Thank you so much because we had to learn how to use these different presentation formats for our students and we didn’t know how to do it.” The district isn’t teaching them how to do it.

Some people have predicted a coming disaster. Do you think that’s accurate?

Nah … No, no, no. But there’s a sea change taking place in education right now. You see, everything’s on a continuum. Every school in this county is on a continuum. There are traditional schools like the one I went to — where everyone’s in a row and teacher knows everything and pours the information in your head, and you shut up and listen and only talk when you’re spoken to.

And then there are some schools that are embracing innovation. Some examples where you see this already taking place are at schools like Millennium Tech or E3 Civic High. Or High Tech High. And some of them are charters.

But I also see regular public schools that are becoming more entrepreneurial. But you know, No Child Left Behind was a horrible thing. It put people in a box. It made people afraid. It made them teach to the tests. It took all the creativity away from the teacher. And people think that the Common Core is doing the same thing, but it’s not.

All the Common Core is saying is: Here, these are standards, teach them any way you want. But you gotta teach them. And that’s what I have always wanted, was standards, because you can’t let teachers just teach anything they want. So to me, it’s day and night. Common Core is nothing like No Child Left Behind.

Didn’t No Child Left Behind focus on standards as well?

There were standards, yes. Different standards. The Common Core standards are far more exciting, far more interesting. Developed by — a lot of people don’t know this — developed by educators. So they reflect the beliefs of outstanding teachers. The standards that we used before were not common from state to state. But the testing was. The requirements were. So everybody was teaching to a test, and test scores were put in the newspapers, and I didn’t want my school at the bottom. How demoralizing is it when you’re school’s here?

Do you think that although our philosophies have shifted since the peak of No Child Left Behind? In reality the way we’re thinking about a successful school is the same as it used to be.

That’s correct. You’ve got it. It’s lagging. It’s hard to get away from the mentality of No Child Left Behind because it put people in boxes. A lot of teachers and principals think they’re still in those boxes. And unless the central office folks give them permission to innovate, then some of them are going to stay in their box.

So teachers need to be empowered, and principals have to say, “This is what you have to teach, here are the standards, go off and find out the best way to teach them” – whether it be in school or at the Balboa Park museum. But just teach the standards and make sure they know them.

All schools are on the continuum now, and it’s up to the superintendent to move them along the continuum so you’re focusing on what is important. And that’s learning. Not structuring kids around ringing bells. I hate bells. Why do we need bells in school?

    This article relates to: Common Core, Education, News, School Bonds, School Finances, School Leadership, School Performance, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    I can speak as unqualified computer "non-native" and I can tell you that kids will have similar learning curves to know the correct vagaries of how to navigate the new tests as the teacher adults. Unless someone at the State is so "anal" as a Steve Jobs to make this assessment work easily, this test will test only one thing...your frustration quotient, not intelligence quotient. This test must be user friendly from the "get-go" or else performance will not be assessed properly. I have brought this issue up to the people at the San Diego County Office of Education and they look at me like....yeah, we know. ....but no answers. If babies are swiping on an iphone or ipad how are our children going to relate to someone's bad dream from d.o.s. How are the children going to overcome the stupid pop-ups on the screen because IT techies didn't do their job. The State needs to adapt their focus to an ipad type mentality to get the efficiencies necessary to assess properly and accurately. This is cross-cultural and not a north of I-8, south of I-8 problem. It is our problem.  If it doesn't work for the kids, it just doesn't work: witness the Obamacare debacle of October. People are far more computer saavy than whomever is mixing this test. Get real.

    David LaRoche
    David LaRoche subscriber

    This should be the topic story in the SDUSD? Check to see if this County is ready for testing - "NO"

    "By Howard Blume
    January 27, 2014, 9:08 p.m.
    The nation's second-largest school district is woefully unprepared to administer new state standardized tests by computer, a survey of Los Angeles Unified schools has found.
    An internal district report, obtained by The Times through a California Public Records Act request, indicates that fewer than a third of Los Angeles schools said they were ready for this spring's tests, which for the first time will be given online.
    The survey comes amid a $1-billion effort to provide every student, teacher and administrator with an iPad or other computer. That effort has been delayed even though the Board of Education agreed this month to buy as many of the tablets as needed for testing.
    The review, however, revealed larger problems: limited Internet access on many campuses, a lack of expertise at many schools and too few computers. Additionally, the iPads may not arrive in time.",0,5974079.story#ixzz2ri71JqfNL.A. Unified unprepared for computerized state test,0,5974079.story#ixzz2ri71JqfNThe nation's second-largest school district is woefully unprepared to administer new state standardized tests by computer, a survey of Los Angeles Unified schools has found. An internal district report, obtained by The Times through a California Publ...

    Anna Crotty
    Anna Crotty memberadministrator

    I've got kids in elementary school and we're seeing huge changes because of common core. Personally, I'm a fan, but any change this big isn't going to be popular with everyone. I think a great follow up article to this would be to explain why the photo that Rachel Laing posted actually isn't nuts at all. I had pretty poor math instruction until college, when I took a lot of math. I spent a whole semester in elementary number theory cursing every teacher I had in elementary school --and from what I've seen, common core addresses every single thing I cursed those teachers over. Our school had a great parent night where a math educator came and explained how common core is changing things. I do think that those of us who grew up in the US learned a lot that night about how math is taught if you want the students to grow up and actually use math to solve problems. (Mario, if you want to talk to one of the math educators who can explain why the math in the picture isn't nuts, let me know.)

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran

    That would be great. Thanks, Anna. When you have time, please drop me a note at

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    Really? "Why have bells?" Because the education agenda is a war agenda: class and empire's wars. Any nation writhing in inequality and promising youth endless war is going to make odd demands on schools. To write an article on the Common Core and not mention, prominently, Bill Gates' millions is to rather miss the journalistic point: follow the money. Or, ask: Why have school?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    For a contrary opinion on Common Core, read “Story Killers: How the Common Core Destroys Minds and Souls”, by Dr. Terrence O, Moore.

    Remember when education was basically a local responsibility? Then the state started dictating more and more to local districts as it took over funding. Finally, with the creation of the Dept. of Education during the Carter administration, the feds got in the act big time.

    I can‘t resist asking the question that got Ronald Reagan elected (slightly modified), “Are students performing better in school now than they were 50 years ago?” More pertinent, are we producing the graduates with the skills necessary for tomorrow’s careers? The answers are painfully obvious, and I don’t see any evidence that more central control of curricula and pedagogy is the answer. Remember "New Math" around 1970? where is it now?

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    Yes Mario it is. You just stated that in fact. If states are adopting them, then they must have originated somewhere else.


    Bill - 50 years ago? That was the year the Civil Rights Act was signed. Taken as a whole, yeah, I think schools are doing better.

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    Taken as a whole, no, they are likely not doing better.

    While no metrics exist to quantify the rankings across those decades, OECD and PISA scores show the US, which at one time was at the forefront of public education is in decline on the world stage,

    Our schools exist today to serve unions and not kids.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran

    Hi Bill, I don't take a position for or against Common Core standards, but I don't think it's accurate to suggest they're coming from the federal government. States have the option of adopting them or not.

    But to play devil's advocate to your point about students not being more prepared today than they were 50 years ago: If that's the case, wouldn't it be all the more reason to do something differently?

    Jason Lindquist
    Jason Lindquist subscribermember

    "After governors and education leaders initiated the Common Core movement, teachers and content experts helped write new standards in math and English that weigh critical thinking skills above rote memorization."

    Oh? Which governors did the initiating? Can you show us how CCSS's genesis follows from any particular governor's chatter about standards? Because I've read that CCSS did not originate in any state or federal government office. It is the product of a privately assembled, privately funded effort, operating under a veil of secrecy. Teachers and "content experts"? I've read that there was exactly one teacher involved in developing the standards. Everyone else involved, your "content experts", came from companies involved in standardized testing or test prep and tutoring. These weren't panels of K-12 teachers or university education academics.

    We hear a lot about how CCSS is supposed to emphasize critical thinking skills... but just how does it do that? And how do you test that effectively, with useful, informative results? Can you do it with multiple-choice questions, or do you have to use essays? When the college entrance exams added essay components, College Board and ACT had to build up huge infrastructures to get them evaluated. It was not a small effort, and that's two tests that cover just high school juniors who think they want to go to college. If you scaled that method to cover every K-12 student, isn't it an enormous cost?

    You mention how Cindy Marten has to run point implementing CCSS in San Diego Unified, but you don't even ask how CCSS addresses and accounts for students in poor communities, or who are English learners, which SDUSD has in large numbers. Will those students be served well under CCSS?

    No Child Left Behind "put people in boxes"... are we supposed to assume that CCSS does not? Is there any evidence to support that? How do the standards differ to make this happen?

    I see no deep, probing, detailed questions here. That's out of character for VOSD. What gives?

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran

    Thanks for reading. This story was a question-and-answer piece, not really a in-depth look at the merits or history of the Common Core standards. With these, I try to let the source share her or his perspective.

    But I can appreciate what I assume is your main point. You'd like to have more information on the topic. I'll be following up on the standards in future posts.

    Marilynn Gallagher
    Marilynn Gallagher

    Carlsbad Unified, are you listening? IPADS (eg keyboarding) are essential skills needed with the smarter balanced testing that starts this year. What have you done to prepare our kids for this technology? After School PAID programs through your fundraising arm aren't going to cut it for the kids of our city. Neither is the online program that you recommend. IF you are implementing tests that require keyboarding, then your obligation is to teach KEYBOARDING in the schools.
    As for the content, I would have liked to have read more about the proof of the benefits of Common Core, then this educators criticisms of NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND. Her statements about it being demoralizing if your school is on the bottom are ridiculous. As BS CS, 5s 4s need to be scored, and teachers need to be evaluated. If the teachers or the program doesn't work, find something (or someone) that does. You have to know what is successful, and evaluations make that so. Just like the real world. Everyone cant win. Sometime it takes failure to stoke the fire, or move you in a different direction where you can succeed.

    David LaRoche
    David LaRoche subscriber

    The upcoming catastrophe with the common core roll-out will be this years' Smarter Balance testing of students. This year, all students "must" test with computers only. There will be no pencil/paper option. The schools in the San Diego Unified School District will not have the equipment nor band width to access all students on their servers. The schools the SDUSD operate and lease out (charter facilities) will fail miserably. On a good note, this is why the state wanted a "technology only" test. All schools can make the proper adjustments next year.

    Matt Watkins
    Matt Watkins subscribermember

    Something this article (and many articles on education) barely touches on is the need to communicate how Common Core works to parents. It's parents, not educators or students, who are the primary consumers of K-12 education. We are the ones you should be trying to sell this to. Parents are invested in getting a quality education for their kids. I want to know how, for instance, how teaching multiplication tables that way ties into other skills. I think it's great that my 1st grader is learning algebra along with how to add and subtract; it makes sense to integrate the curricula that way, but it would be nice to have a parent's cheat sheet; there's a whole generation of parents out here who learned differently and we need to know how to apply what we learned to understanding the curriculum being taught to our kids. Example: I'm an engineer; I use math every day in my job; I intuit how it works. This helps me to understand what it is that my 1st grade daughter's math homework is trying to get her to do; how it's communicating the ability to understand and manipulate numbers. But my wife, who is very smart, has a liberal arts Ph.D., is often lost simply because the problems aren't anything like what we learned as kids.

    My experience here in San Diego is that schools are pretty bad at communicating with parents about curricula and how teaching is done and what students are expected to be learning. We also haven't been told how successful the Common Core has been at achieving results or what studies have been done to prove its efficacy, so it feels like our kids' futures are being jeopardized so that our education system can run this giant lab experiment. There's a lot of talk around education about how parent involvement is a critical ingredient in educational success, which is true not least because we are the ones filling out Choice applications. We are the ones paying property taxes and/or tuition. We are the ones shuttling our kids to and from schools and activities and trying to figure out how to manage 'minimum days' and 'curriculum days' and school vacations. It would be really nice to feel like we have a seat at the table.