Common Core Standards Implemented at Tam

By Isaac Cohen

New educational standards, dubbed Common Core, are changing the way English and math are taught across the U.S. and the Tamalpais Union High School district. In 2010, the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards by 45 states went largely unnoticed by Tam students and parents. It is just beginning to attract public attention now as curriculum changes are starting to reach students through the classroom and in new standardized tests.

Common Core is an educator-backed, state-initiated program which aims to define clear standards for topics and skills students are expected to learn. It reduces the number of topics and focuses more on skills and critical thinking. According to the Common Core website, “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” New math and english standards have been adopted by the state but district implementation is currently optional as the new curriculums is developed.

The Tamalpais Union High School District has worked to implement the Common Core Standards. According to Assistant Superintendent Michael McDowell, “Over the past two years, all teachers have worked together to … prioritize and emphasize key standards from the state standards and, as related to math and ELA, [under] Common Core.” These changes affect the math and English department in different ways.

“The curriculum is not changing that much—the way we present it is,” said math teacher and department leader David Wetzel. According to Wetzel, the topics taught in math are going to remain the same but with a new focus on problem solving and real world application. Common Core will not be fully implemented in the math department for a few more years because the students at Tam have not been previously educated under the standards. “Common core is being implemented fully at MVMS,” said Wetzel. According to Wetzel, it can’t be fully implemented here until those students enter math classes at Tam.

The changes to the English department will not be as visible in the classroom as those in the math department. English teacher and department leader David Tarpinian said, “We looked at the common core standards and pulled out what we thought were the most important elements and created eight program goals for the English department.”

The purpose of these eight standards, called the GVC or Guaranteed Viable Curriculum, is to standardize what is learned across classrooms in the different schools of the district.

“What we decided to be the most valuable program goals we already do anyway,” Tarpinian said. “But the difference is that we have all done it our own way for so long that it might vastly different at Drake and Tam.” According to Tarpinian, under the GVC teachers are now required to ensure that students have mastery in those eight program goals but the method of teaching remains up to the teacher. The goals will be measured on a proficiency scale of one to four with three as a guaranteed result for all students. “What will be consistent from department to department is there will be tiered interventions to help students not fail, we want all students to be at a three,” said Tarpinian.

In addition to curriculum changes, the STAR tests are being replaced with new tests designed to align with the Common Core Standards. According to an email sent to Tamalpais district parents by Superintendent Laurie Kimbrel, “students will no longer take the paper and pencil, multiple-choice STAR test. The new testing system will be computerized and adaptive … and the test will automatically adjust to the skill level of the student.”

Some teachers expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the changes, arguing that every ten years or so a new educational reform movement comes along without creating any real results. “Teachers feel under-respected, then we get groups of people coming in telling us what to do, and that irritates us naturally enough,” social studies teacher Luc Chamberlain said.

Despite hesitant acceptance there is strong support for the Common Core changes. A major backer of Common Core, former Governor of West Virginia Bob Wise told the National Journal in a blog post that states should give the new standards a chance. “The Common Core State Standards are perhaps the most significant education reform effort over the past two decades, so it’s no surprise that they are making waves. … All students deserve to graduate from high school college and career ready, and standards that set those expectations are essential.”