Ted Simons: Schools in Arizona and 45 other states are implementing new academic standards to make students more globally competitive and better prepared for college and career. Here to tell us more about Arizona’s common core standards is Dr. Denise Birdwell, superintendent of the Higley Unified School District, and Jaime Molera, president for the state board of education. Let's start with the definition. What is common core?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: The common core is a set of standards that drives instruction within a classroom. It's what we build the curriculum around. It's a larger picture that drives thing learning to every student.
Ted Simons: Okay, is that -- it sounds like it's different than what we do now, but still talking teaching, aren't you?
Jaime Molera: We are. What I think it's a focus on the key academic areas a kid needs to be successful once they leave high school so they wouldn't need remedial classes if they go on to higher education. That's been a huge problem throughout the years where you have folks say they graduated from a high school in Arizona, they might need remedial course work. Really common core should be able to fix that. You're giving them the skills necessary to be competitive.
Ted Simons: When did Arizona adopt common core standards?
Jaime Molera: In 2010. We then just adopted the process by which we're going to test that; the assessments that go with it. We have developed the framework allowing school districts to understand, 2014 we'll have the last of the aims test. It will phase out for kids that didn't pass it so according to the law it says you have to have a graduation assessment. We'll still keep that but PARCC comes in earnest in 2015.
Ted Simons: Before we get to differences in the way kids would be taught with this new method, mention the AIMS test coming up shortly. Compare the aims test to what we'll be seeing with this new PARCC test.
Dr. Denise Birdwell: When you look at the aims test you're talking about in comparison to looking at the difference between a multiple choice kinds of driven test to a data based analysis kinds of assessment where writing is much more critical, reading is much more critical. The rigor is higher. So students have to apply the mathematical knowledge rather than just look at the discrete skills and how they use mathematics. That is going to be a significant difference for our students. The skill level is higher; the application of the knowledge is higher, so there will be a significant difference in our assessments.
Ted Simons: Sounds like a significant difference for teachers and those assessing these tests. No longer do you say b is wrong, a, right. Read the sentence, make sure it makes sense.
Dr. Denise Birdwell: Absolutely. It's not only content but academic vocabulary pieces. Along with evidence based answering. So a student isn't just going to pick an answer. They have to actually defend the answer.
Ted Simons: Are teachers ready for this? I go back to the idea of not just looking at a grid, you have to really listen, read and comprehend what the kid is trying to get across.
Jaime Molera: A lot of it falls on school districts to get raid. Frankly, a lot of them, Higley started in 2011in preparation for this. The reason we took our actions early was to give that signal saying we are going down this path. We want them to understand when it will be applied so teachers can gear up.
Ted Simons: How many school districts, schools in general, have already adopted it?
Jaime Molera: I think you have a majority of school districts already moving in this direction. Clearly you can see that. What I'm concerned about are some of the small rural districts, charter schools. Those are the kinds of things we're working on now to give them the resources, technical skills, the state department has been great getting them training to get them ready.
Ted Simons: Let's go into a classroom. How does the common core standard, how do those lessons, that program, how does that differ from what's currently being taught?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: Well, it depends on the grade level. This is a pre-k-through-senior level change. It changes the high school level although it's English language arts and mathematics driven every subject area has responsibilities for the learning of the common core. So every teacher has to look at how do I teach writing, reading, what's the application of mathematics. In a social studies classroom you'll have application of mathematics embedded within the teaching. You have to look at your curriculum and go through and make sure the standards are incorporated in every subject area.
Ted Simons: Something along the lines of where there may be a social study on poverty in America with numbers and facts and figures, students would have to apply those to the story?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: Well, not only would have to apply this, they have to analyze, synthesize and able to explain possible solutions to those issues using the evidence from the text they are reading. You have reading in the content as well as contextual interpretations. Those are critical thinking levels of skills.
Ted Simons: Are we ready for this? It’s one thing to say, “Analyze this report,” but it’s another for the kid to actually be able to.
Jaime Molera: It's a good question. One of the things we have to do is not just at a local level but let's look at state policy, the systems that govern what we're doing. I appreciate governor brewer talking about this, about the kinds of resources that will be needed. The other thing that's important is that you're starting to see a much deeper focus in this, tomorrow, for instance, you have a joined committee of the House Commerce Committee along with the House Education and Higher Education Committees meeting jointly just on this issue. They will have CEOs of major industries and business groups talking about how important it is not just from an academic perspective but from business leaders saying we need those skills so translated Arizona will be more competitive.
Ted Simons: Sounds like more creativity again, more analysis, maybe just getting a kid to think for themselves. Is that the idea here? The impetus?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: It's part of t. With we look at the skills necessary in the business world as we go forward and look at preparing that learner for career and college readiness we're talking about analysis, having critical thinking skills to analyze a problem, solve a problem using the knowledge that we have. It's not subject driven. This is taking and breaking down those isolations of learning and actually saying we all have to come together and integrate the learning process so we cross from the science into social studies, into mathematics, we come together in that aspect. That is reading and writing skills. Not every teacher embraces that I'm a writing teacher, no, I teach social studies. Not in the future. You will teach riding, writing, you'll have academic vocabulary development. That's a new process for teachers.
Ted Simons: Sounds like rote memorization may be a thing of the past.
Dr. Denise Birdwell: Not only that, also direct lecture. There's a place and time for lecture but you will not see as much in a classroom in the future because we have to allow students to explore and learn from the text they are going to be exposed to.
Ted Simons: Compare now if you would what would happen in an early K-through-12 situation and in the high school level. Is it different? Do you approach this differently?
Jaime Molera: Denise can give a lot more specifics than I can, but the way I see it we used to have standards that were a mile wide and an inch deep. I think what this does, it gives more focus on those fundamental areas like I talked about, core academic areas that kids need to be successful. But also it gives in other subject matters that students take it puts emphasis on why they need to incorporate those essential skills in whatever they are studying, computer graphics, social studies. All those things need strong mathematics, writing and reading skills.
Ted Simons: Is this mandated from on high? This is a national mandate?
Jaime Molera: No, this is a consortium of states. It was really business driven. You had the U.S. Chamber of commerce, governors association talking about why we need to have a better system. That's how this ended up developing.
Ted Simons: Are our teachers ready?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: They will be ready. I think part of our teachers are ready today. Training began in our district we started as soon as the state board gave the direction, so January 1 of 2011 we began the process. We have already integrated in the east valley. The districts have come together, we have worked jointly to make sure that curriculum shifts occurred, instructional practice are changing. By August in many districts we will be ready.
Ted Simons: Something in Colorado or Nevada would be different that what kids may be taught here in Arizona. There's no national standard here?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: The common core standard itself could be seen between states between districts. However, the actual content of how that's taught, the curriculum used to teach that standard may vary from school to school, grade to grade. You should see commonality within a school. Third grade teachers will have a common curriculum to deliver that standard.
Ted Simons: What about faster learners, slower learners, higher performing schools, lower performing schools?
Jaime Molera: Well, I think that's where the assessment piece comes, the accountability piece goes hand in hand with Common Core. Under AIMS from a state level we only test four times, third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, and then graduation test. Which is actually a myth; it's only a 10TH grade exam. That's the level of what students learn. PARCC starts from the get-go. We're able to assess on a yearly basis. If you have kids that are progressing faster it allows parents and teachers and administrators to put them on that faster track so they are not bored in school. Conversely, if you have kids that are struggling it allows educators and parents to define what's wrong, how do we get those interventions so they are not waiting multiple years to take action.
Ted Simons: What about funding?
Jaime Molera: Funding is key. I think it's important that we recognize we have to utilize our existing funding better in my opinion. Educators around the state need to redeploy some of the resources and embrace -- this is the common element. This is their fundamental task as educators. Let's also recognize the technology that's needed. If you're going to move to end of course assessments, every year assessments we need to give the schools resources and equipment to do that.
Ted Simons: Last question. People are listening to this, hearing Common Core, hearing PARCC test. Saying this is brand new. What's going on here? Sounds like a big change. How do we know that this is a change for the better? How do we know this is best for Arizona school kids?
Dr. Denise Birdwell: First of all let's say that school reform is better for children. So as we look forward we should always get better at our craft and our practice. We know more about how a student learns than we have ever known. We need to improve that process. Common Core was designed by experts in the field, research based, teachers were involved. Those who were actually delivered the knowledge, the craft, have been a part of the process. I think that's critical part of any reform. That's why I think it will be successful. It has the experts, researchers and teachers behind it.
Ted Simons: Sounds like it has public policy folks saying we can fund this, we will support this.
Jaime Molera: Correct. Governor Brewer has made it a big piece of her legislative agenda for the year and with Speaker Tobin giving it the focus, I'm very optimistic.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.