DANVILLE -- As San Ramon Valley students savored their last weeks of summer this month, hundreds of their teachers studied up on the new Common Core State Standards they must begin teaching.

Common Core is a national shift in education that values problem solving and critical thinking skills over memorization. It is an attempt to better equip students for the obstacles they will face in life.

In Spring 2015, students in the state will no longer sharpen their pencil to take the scantron California Standards Tests. Rather, they will ready their computer mouse and fingers to click and type in the right answer on an electronic state test that surveys their knowledge of the new Common Core standards, and adapts the difficulty based on student responses.

Even though San Ramon Valley students regularly outperform their peers on the state's current standardized tests, their teachers are moving full-steam ahead to change their way of teaching to conform with the new edict of content and teaching principles adopted by a majority of states. Some applaud the change as a return to the art and heart of teaching to the benefit of students, and others criticize it as more regressive federal regulation of teaching.

"The way that we assess kids is going to be very different and they are going to be asked to perform and to demonstrate their understanding very differently," teacher Ngoc Nguyen told a group of third, fourth and fifth grade district teachers meeting at Windemere Ranch Middle School last week. Teachers gathered to learn how to use Common Core methods with elementary math. "The bad news is even if you're not embracing it, you don't have a choice," she said.


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But even as more schools begin to switch, most Americans have never heard of the Common Core State Standards, a PDK-Gallup poll released Aug. 21 found.

That might be because not all districts are as far along as San Ramon Valley, especially in California where the official transition and the state funding for it begins this school year.

San Ramon Valley teachers and staff were familiarized with the standards at an all-district meeting last fall. By the end of the school year, more than a dozen district teachers had been trained to be Common Core trainers, task forces for math, English and literacy were created, and a committee formed to decide how elementary school report cards, aligned with current state standards, need to be changed.

In the two weeks before school started this year, as many as 400 San Ramon Valley teachers attended 60 Common Core classes, district officials said.

"We were fortunate to be able to have a little (money) in reserve and a little funds we could flex to implement this, but it is expensive," said Superintendent Mary Shelton. The district will get $5.99 million in one-time state money this year to implement new standards. That money will pay back the $254,000 spent last year and fund the transition.

Although districts can spend that state money on technology, professional development or new curriculum, San Ramon Valley students will not see new textbooks this year, Shelton said. Instead teachers are told to craft lessons with existing textbooks and materials, some written with the Common Core in mind. They are also urged to use Internet resources, and the district may buy online subscriptions to e-books and research websites to help.

"That's kind of what Common Core is all about. You don't get everything just from reading a chapter in your textbook. You have to go out and research on the Internet, read from different sources," said Shelton.

Students this year can expect more research projects with real-world application and more class discussion and explanatory writing about how they arrive at their answers.

Falling by the wayside may be the volume of work they must do and teachers might skip lessons students don't need, leaving more time for difficult lessons.

Among the more controversial changes will be a shift in content mastery for some skills to later grades, like multiplication and division, now a fourth and fifth grade standard instead of third grade.

"Not only will they be mathematically ready but also developmentally ready," Nguyen told teachers.

It's those sorts of changes that have led to misconceptions about the new standards, Shelton said.

"You'll hear that it's dumbing down the curriculum and to me if anything it's taking it to a higher level," she said. It will "help our kids think and write and read at high levels and be prepared for the jobs that they are going to have in the 21st century."

Dana Slocum, fourth grade teacher at Neil Armstrong Elementary, welcomes the change and said she will have her students use a math journal this year to explain their answers.

"This idea of having less (to teach), but teaching with more rigor, I think that's a great way to teach and I think it's the way we should be teaching."

She's not the only enthusiastic one, said Ann Katzburg, president of the teacher's union.

"I think our teachers overall are excited about going to the Common Core because it is going to be a paradigm shift to them where they won't be teaching to a test," she said, adding that a new emphasis on deciphering nonfiction text will better prepare students for college.

All San Ramon Valley campuses are seeking to begin Common Core testing next spring instead of using the old test, but the state has yet to select participating campuses.

Ashly McGlone covers San Ramon. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.