Teachers embrace the Common Core

Teacher Linnea Wolters. She was resistant to the Common Core at first. 
(Photo: Emily Hanford)Teacher Linnea Wolters. She was resistant to the Common Core at first. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Like most Americans, Linnea Wolters knew almost nothing about the Common Core standards when her state first adopted them, in October 2010. Her gut reaction was this: “National standards, national curriculum, national nightmare, oh my God!”

Wolters was a 5th grade teacher at a low-income school in the Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada. Nevada already had state standards, and she thought they were terrible.

“I considered the standards to be like shackles,” she says.

For Wolters, “standards” were code for telling teachers what to do. The school district was very top-down in its approach to education, says Wolters, especially at poor schools like hers where lots of kids struggled on the state standardized tests.

Teachers were given textbooks with scripted lesson plans, and experts were always coming in to tell teachers how to do things. She didn’t feel she was trusted to make her own judgments about what students needed. Instead, it was like she was supposed to memorize other people’s formulas for how to help kids learn.

The idea that she was now going to endure some “national” version of the same thing? That was an awful thought.

‘This thing called Common Core’

Contrary to what Linnea Wolters initially assumed, the Common Core standards do not come from the federal government. They were written at the request of governors and state school superintendents. States chose whether to adopt them. (Read more about where the Common Core came from.)

The Common Core standards are not a curriculum either. They are goals for what students should be able to do by the end of high school. For example, “assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.” And, “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” The math standards do lay out in detail the content students should learn each year, but the standards do not say what books or materials teachers should use. The English Language Arts standards include an appendix that suggests texts and lessons for each grade level, but not every state adopted the appendix, and the appendix is not a required reading list. (Read the Common Core State Standards.)

Like Linnea Wolters, a lot of teachers didn’t know any of this about Common Core at first. A 2011 survey of public school teachers found that more than 20 percent of teachers had either never heard of Common Core or weren’t sure what it was. Among teachers who had heard of the standards, more than a quarter said they felt “somewhat unprepared” or “very unprepared” to teach the new standards.

Richard Clark, teacher and chair of the social studies department at Reno High School. He didn’t know anything about Common Core when Nevada first adopted the standards in 2010. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Richard Clark, teacher and chair of the social studies department at Reno High School. He didn’t know anything about Common Core when Nevada first adopted the standards in 2010. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

States had a lot of work to do to inform their teachers about the standards and to help them figure out how to teach them.

“In the spring of 2011, we got an email that we were supposed to meet and talk about this thing called Common Core,” says Richard Clark, chair of the social studies department at Reno High School. “And we all looked at each other like, what do you mean? What is this Common Core?”

“That initial meeting was a catastrophe,” says Angela Orr, a high school history teacher who had just taken a job as the Washoe County school district’s social studies program coordinator.

At the meeting, Orr says, district officials presented their “rollout” plan. Teachers would get “curriculum maps” and a “crosswalk document” to show them what to do. The district said switching from the old state standards to Common Core would mostly be a matter of adding a few things and moving material around. For example, some things kids used to learn in fourth grade they might now learn in third grade. Teachers were assured there would be plenty of documents from the district to explain it all.

“At that point, I was out,” says Orr, rolling her eyes. Common Core sounded like one big bureaucratic nightmare. No one was talking about why the standards were changing or what the new standards actually said. It was just process and paperwork and it had “nothing to with what teachers care about, which is students and how they learn,” says Orr.

Scott Bailey, chief academic officer for the Washoe County Schools, admits the district’s initial approach to Common Core was far from ideal. “Unfortunately, we tend to get into a groove where we’re just disseminating information,” he says.

But Bailey and other district officials were about to learn from their teachers about a different way to approach the “rollout” of Common Core.

Something’s not working

When Nevada adopted the Common Core, Aaron Grossman had recently taken a job as a teacher-trainer for the Washoe County Schools. It was Grossman’s job to teach teachers the new English Language Arts standards, and he wasn’t sure where to begin. All the documents the school district was handing out were piling up on his desk, but he had to figure out how to help teachers use those documents.

He decided to poke around a bit on the Internet, see what he could learn about Common Core. He came across a video of David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the Common Core English Language Arts standards. In the video, Coleman is addressing a conference of principals in New York City.

Coleman starts by talking about the fact that lots of American students get through high school successfully but still end up in remedial classes when they get to college. The latest data shows at least one in five college students in the United States has to take remedial classes. At some colleges, it’s as high as 80 percent.

Coleman then goes on to talk about NAEP scores. NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s a test given to a sample of students across the country, and it shows that only about a third of students are proficient in math and reading. What’s worse, says Coleman in his speech, American students have shown little progress on NAEP over the past ten years, particularly in reading. That’s despite the fact that the No Child Left Behind law, which went into effect in 2002, was specifically designed to improve math and reading scores. It hasn’t worked, Coleman told the principals, and Common Core is a new approach.

Aaron Grossman is a teacher-trainer in the Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada. It was his job to teach teachers the Common Core standards, and he didn’t know where to start. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Aaron Grossman is a teacher-trainer in the Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada. It was his job to teach teachers the Common Core standards, and he didn’t know where to start. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Aaron Grossman was intrigued. The message from the school district was that Common Core wasn’t a big change.

But that’s not what David Coleman was telling the New York principals in his speech. Coleman said Common Core was going to require a profound shift in the way most schools approach education.

The jackpot standards

Before Common Core, teachers in Reno used what they call a “skills and strategies” approach to teaching. It’s an approach that was widely used at schools across the country, particularly poor schools where lots of kids struggled with the basics of math and reading.

The idea is that, for example, to learn how to be a good reader, kids need to learn all the skills and strategies that good readers use — things like knowing how to find the main idea, identifying key details, and being able to draw conclusions. The hope was that once kids mastered all these skills, they’d be good readers and thinkers.

Elementary school students in Reno, Nevada lined up before class. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Elementary school students in Reno, Nevada lined up before class. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The skills were laid out in detail in the Nevada state standards. The standards were meant to be incremental, with a new twist or addition to the same basic skill added each year. In third grade, students were supposed to learn how to “identify examples of imagery, similes, personification.” In fourth grade, they were supposed to learn how to “explain how the author uses imagery, similes, personification and metaphors.” In sixth grade, students were supposed to be able to “explain setting.” In seventh grade, they were supposed to know how to “analyze setting.”

In 2010, the Fordham Institute evaluated each state’s standards and concluded that Nevada’s English Language Arts standards were “broadly written and repetitive” and showed “no progression of rigor.” Nevada got a C for its standards. Most states received a C or worse.

One of the biggest problems with previous state standards, according to many experts, is there were far too many of them. Aaron Grossman in Reno says one of his colleagues once counted up all of the Nevada state standards and calculated it would take 23 1/2 years to teach them all. So, teachers didn’t even try. Instead, says Grossman, they focused on what they called the “power standards,” or — this being Reno — the “jackpot standards.”

“And all of this was code for, this is the stuff that’s on the test,” says Grossman.

There was a lot of stress about the tests. More than half of the Washoe County public schools had been labeled “in need of improvement” for failing to get enough students to proficiency on the state standardized tests required by the No Child Left Behind Law. Schools in need of improvement could eventually be taken over by the state, so there was a lot of pressure to get the scores up. The pressure was especially high at poor schools, where the test scores were lowest.

Skill of the day

Students in Reno on the playground before school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Students in Reno on the playground before school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The “jackpot” standards drove the curriculum. The idea was to identify the skills that would be tested, and then teach students those skills, one by one. Teachers in Reno began each lesson by telling kids the skill they’d be learning that day, says Cathy Schmidt, who taught elementary school.

“Like, today we’re going to read to make inferences. Or, today we’re going to predict. Or, today we’re going to draw conclusions,” says Schmidt.

After going over the skill of the day, teachers would typically give kids a quick summary of the story they were about to read. In the elementary grades, kids read mostly stories; there was very little nonfiction. The stories came from textbooks, and each story was selected based on what skill or reading strategy it could help kids learn.

The next step would be to define all the words in the story that might be hard for kids, says Aaron Grossman. “I would do this huge gin-up with the vocabulary and I would give them the full context” for what they were about to read, he says. Basically, he would give away the story before kids read it, with the belief that doing so would help the struggling readers get through it more easily.

After going over the vocabulary and giving kids a summary of the story, teachers would typically ask students about their personal experiences with the topic they were going to read about. So, if the story was about a family taking a train trip, teacher Cathy Schmidt would ask her class, “Have you ever been on a train? Tell me about the time you’ve been on a train.”

The idea was to get students engaged and interested by connecting what they were doing in school with their personal experiences. With a question like, “Have you ever been on a train?” there were always some kids who would raise their hands, eager to talk about their train trips and family vacations, says Cathy Schmidt. But there were others who had nothing to say. Many of them had never been on a train. Some had never left their neighborhoods.

Teachers say this part the lesson, which they refer to as “connecting text to self,” could go on for a long time. Sometimes kids would never actually read the story. They’d get wrapped up in talking about their personal experiences, and then class time was up.

Keep kids out of frustration

When kids did finally get down to reading, they wouldn’t necessarily all read the same text, says Torrey Palmer, a literacy coordinator for the school district in Reno.

Teachers used a technique called “leveled instruction.” Palmer describes it as “an approach to literacy in which students spend the vast majority of their time in a text that is at their reading level. So if a student is in fifth grade and they’re reading at a third grade level, they spend most of their day reading texts at a third grade level.”

Even in the upper grades, students might get different texts to read depending on their reading level, says Angela Orr, who was a high school history teacher.

“I was told if I wanted students to understand a primary source, I should excerpt it for the ‘highest’ kids,” she says. “Give all of the definitions of hard words for what were called the ‘medium’ kids. And then actually change the words to something really comprehensible for the kids that were struggling readers.”

A student in the Washoe County public schools. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

A student in the Washoe County public schools. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Some textbooks actually included multiple versions of the same text, says Orr. She remembers a particular example that bothered her.

“In one level, students were learning about the founders of our nation,” she says. “In another level, the word founders was taken out as if it were too difficult, and a student would read a sentence that says ‘Ben Franklin started the nation.’”

That’s an incorrect statement, of course, but it was written that way to make it easier for struggling readers to understand, says Orr.

The idea of all this leveling was to “keep kids out of frustration,” says Aaron Grossman. This was the message from the school district, from publishers, from all kinds of experts. The goal was to make sure “you don’t create a classroom environment where kids feel defeated,” says Grossman. “And so [teachers] were all enormously cautious about making sure that whatever challenge we put in front of our kids, they weren’t defeated by the experience all together.”

This didn’t just play out in what kids read, but in their writing assignments too. Because the goal was for every student to feel successful — and because many kids struggled with reading — writing assignments often ignored the text all together. So, if the main character in a story gets a new toy, a typical writing assignment might be: Write about your experience of getting a new toy.

This assignment doesn’t depend on the text at all. In fact, you don’t even have to read the text.

Linnea Wolters, the 5th grade teacher in Reno, was fed up with leveled instruction and “skills and strategies.” In her opinion, it didn’t add up to a good education.

“Our students traditionally at risk get more and more of the worst kind of instruction,” says Wolters.

At higher income schools, where most kids scored proficient on the state tests, there wasn’t as much focus on test prep. But at poor schools, she says, kids rarely got to just read a great book and talk about it. Everything was reduced down to what skill a kid was supposed to be learning.

“What could be worse than approaching a story and saying we’re only going to look for the main idea?” Or today we’re going to learn how to make inferences? says Wolters. “You never get to do the parts of learning that are amazing, you never get to do the good stuff,” she says. “And it was another way of making sure that kids who are in poverty stay trapped in poverty.”

Angela Orr, the social studies program coordinator for the Washoe County public schools, agrees. “We created a class-based education system,” she says.

She doesn’t think people did this on purpose. But “by helping students in a fashion bent towards remediation at all costs, we’ve forgotten to allow them to participate in an education that’s meaningful and worthwhile,” she says.

Shifts in instruction

In his speech to principals in New York City, Common Core author David Coleman presented the new standards as an antidote to the leveled-instruction, skills-and-strategies approach to education.

Coleman said teaching the new standards would require teachers to make several major “shifts in instruction.” One of those shifts is to get away from focusing so much on skills and strategies, and instead to think more about what kids read, and in particular, to make sure they are reading text that is sufficiently complex.

“What really changes as kids grow as readers is not that they suddenly learn how to find the main idea,” Coleman told the principals. “It is that they can do so with a much more complex text. The single greatest predictor of college and career readiness is that you can read a sufficiently complex text with confidence.”

Coleman is referring to a 2006 study by ACT, the creators of the ACT college admissions exam. The study showed that what distinguished students who did well on the ACT was not their ability to do things like make inferences or find the main idea while reading. The biggest difference between high and low scorers was the ability to answer questions associated with complex text. According to the authors of the Common Core, the most important implication of the study was this: what students can read, in terms of its complexity, is at least as important as what they can do with what they read.

The Common Core calls for students to get “regular practice with complex texts.” It’s one of three major “shifts in instruction” outlined by the authors of the English Language Arts standards. The second shift is “reading, writing, and speaking, grounded in evidence from texts.” This shift is partly a response to the “connecting text to self” approach that was prevalent at many schools, including the schools in Reno.

In his speech to the New York principals, David Coleman was blunt about what he thought of the focus on personal experience and personal opinion in schools.

“The sad thing about growing up is you realize, people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he said. “What they do care about is that you can argue using evidence, that you can make a claim and support it. That’s what college demands, that’s what the workplace demands.”

David Liben of Student Achievement Partners, working with teachers on a Common Core lesson plan. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

David Liben of Student Achievement Partners, working with teachers on a Common Core lesson plan. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The comment about people not caring about kids’ feelings and opinions later became a source of controversy, but in the moment it drew applause and laughter from the New York principals. And for Aaron Grossman in Reno, who was watching the video on his computer, the speech was generating knowing nods.

“It was provocative, but [Coleman] was expressing things that make a great deal of sense to me,” says Grossman.

The idea of getting kids to refer back to text, rather than personal experience, made Grossman think of a lesson from a textbook that he used to use with his own elementary school students. First, the students read a story about a kid who goes to a symphony. Afterwards, they’re supposed to write an essay comparing the main character’s experience of going to the symphony with their own experience going to a concert.

“And for the kids that I was used to working with, which was a large urban setting, at-risk children, they had nothing to write about,” says Grossman. Most of them had never been to a concert.

David Liben, who works for Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit set up by the authors of the Common Core to help teachers put the standards into practice, says the “text to self” technique often puts kids from poor families at a disadvantage in the classroom. He says if assignments are about kids’ “experience outside the text, that privileges those children who have that experience outside the text.” But when students have to cite evidence from a text, they can all find something to say, says Liben.

More nonfiction

Fourth-graders in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Fourth-graders in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The third Common Core shift in instruction is “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” This one especially resonated with Aaron Grossman. He hadn’t assigned much nonfiction when he was a teacher, and says his colleagues in the elementary grades didn’t assign much nonfiction either.

But it’s a mistake to focus primarily on literature, said David Coleman in his speech to the New York principals.

“The general knowledge kids build in those early years is a crucial predictor of not only their later ability to do history and science and work in the disciplines, but their ability to read more complex text, because they gain a vocabulary and a knowledge that enables them to learn more difficult things,” said Coleman.

There is a wide body of research on the importance of vocabulary and background knowledge when it comes to reading comprehension. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has summed up that research in a number of articles (see for example here
and here).

“Teaching reading strategies is a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost,” Willingham writes. “Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.”

Why do vocabulary and background knowledge matter so much? Because they make reading easier. The more you know, the more you are able to understand what you are reading.

“Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information,” writes Willingham. “For example, suppose you read ‘He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.’ You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property).”

But if you don’t know those things about puppies and carpet and landlords, you will be confused.

“This is exactly what happens for millions of poor readers,” writes Willingham. “They can ‘read’ (they can sound out the words on the page) but they can’t consistently comprehend.”

So how do kids acquire knowledge? They read a lot and they’re exposed to things like museums and newspapers and conversations with knowledgeable people. Students from educated families tend to get exposed to these things at home. But kids from poor families often don’t. They need school to bridge the gap for them.

Students in Reno, Nevada, read more nonfiction because of the Common Core standards. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Students in Reno, Nevada, read more nonfiction because of the Common Core standards. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The Common Core is trying to bridge that gap by bringing nonfiction reading back into schools, in areas like social studies and science. The standards call for students in kindergarten through grade five to read an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction. By eighth grade, students are supposed to spend slightly more time on nonfiction than fiction. And by the end of high school, they are supposed to be spending 70 percent of their time reading informational texts, and 30 percent reading literature. This does not mean English teachers need to cut literature from their syllabi; it means that, across all of their high school classes, students should be spending 70 percent of their time reading nonfiction texts.

“While it’s crucial that kids gain a sense of story and its structure, it’s equally powerful that they gain a growing knowledge of the world,” Coleman told the principals in New York.

Aaron Grossman liked the idea of getting kids to read more nonfiction.

“Social studies and science just weren’t being taught” in the elementary grades, says Grossman. “In the effort to teach kids reading skills, we had kind of forgotten about the importance of a lot of other stuff.”

David Coleman’s speech reminded Grossman about the importance of all the “other stuff.”

Know your enemy

Aaron Grossman wasn’t quite sure what to make of the David Coleman speech. “Of all the stuff that had been shared with me at that point about Common Core, none of it included anything that [Coleman] was describing,” he says.

Grossman wanted a second opinion on the Coleman video, so he showed it to his colleague Torrey Palmer, a literacy coordinator for the Washoe County Schools.

“Basically my jaw dropped,” she says. “And [I thought], ‘This is big, this is different, and if we can build off of this, then we could be doing something probably pretty significant for our classrooms and for our students,’” says Palmer.

Grossman and Palmer went to their boss and asked if they could use some professional development money to bring a group of teachers together for a Common Core training session. The idea was simple: play the video and talk about it.

Linnea Wolters works with a teacher on a Common Core lesson plan. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Linnea Wolters works with a teacher on a Common Core lesson plan. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

One of the teachers they invited is Linnea Wolters, the 5th grade teacher who was sick of standards and not looking forward to Common Core.

“Oh, I’ll go,” she says she thought to herself when she got the invitation to the training session. “Because I believe you should know your enemy.”

Eighteen teachers came to the meeting. Some of them reacted to the video the way Aaron Grossman and Torrey Palmer had.

“I was fired up,” says Cathy Schmidt, a teacher trainer for the district. “What we were doing before wasn’t working. Kids weren’t getting to be better readers.”

She says Coleman’s speech made sense.

But not everyone was so convinced.

“I didn’t hate it,” says Linnea Wolters, referring to the Coleman speech.

What he was talking about did sound different from what she and other teachers had been doing in their classrooms. But she was skeptical about whether the standards he was describing could really work.

Trying Common Core

Teachers at the meeting agreed to try a Common Core sample lesson with their students. They chose to do what’s called a “close reading” of a text. Close reading is not a new idea, but it has gained currency as a technique to teach the Common Core.

When Linnea Wolters looked at the sample lesson she was going to teach, she was shocked. “You gotta be freaking kidding me,” she thought.

The lesson focused on “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus that’s engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“It’s hard!” says Wolters. She assumed the sonnet would be much too difficult for her fifth graders.

Her students began by reading the sonnet on their own. The lesson directs teachers to say little about the sonnet up front. This allows students to “rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lazarus’s words,” according to the lesson plan. Next, the teacher reads the sonnet out loud, in part to help students who may have had trouble reading on their own.

After everyone has read the sonnet at least twice, the teacher is supposed to guide the class through a series of “text-dependent questions and tasks.” The first question in the lesson is to figure out the rhyme scheme of the poem. Students are supposed to look at the final word in each line and assign a different letter to each set of words that rhyme. The last words in each line include fame and flame, land and stand, poor and shore.

“We were highlighting things and writing A’s and B’s and C’s and D’s,” Wolters says. It was kind of chaos and she wasn’t sure the kids were catching on. Then a student called out, “It’s a pattern!”

This was a girl who was receiving special education services for a learning disability. She had figured out the rhyme scheme of the sonnet.

The class started digging in to the rhyme scheme, trying to figure out how it affects the meaning of the sonnet. It’s tricky. The sonnet begins with the line “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.” The fourth line is, “A mighty woman with a torch.” The lines are referring to two different statues, but the kids were not getting that, says Wolters.

If she had been teaching this sonnet without the Common Core lesson plan, Wolters says she would have started by telling the students it was a poem that compares the Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient Greek statue, and the Statue of Liberty. But the Common Core lesson plan said, don’t do that. The idea was to see what kids could come up with on their own, just by reading the text.

They weren’t coming up with much though. At one point, the room was completely silent except for the sound of crickets coming from the classroom lizard cage. The kids were stumped. Wolters wasn’t sure what to do.

Then two boys who were working together raised their hands. “Yes?” Wolters asked.

She was surprised to see these kids with their hands up. They didn’t speak English at home. They struggled to keep up in class, especially with reading. And they almost never raised their hands.

“It’s about the Statue of Liberty,” said the boys. The rest of the class said, “What?” They weren’t buying it.

Wolters asked the boys if they had any evidence for their point of view. The boys pointed to the sonnet and said, “It says it’s a woman with a torch.”

“What do you think of Ezekial and Salvadore’s ideas?” Wolters asked the class. The other students weren’t sure. “Why don’t you see if you can find more evidence?” she asked them.

That got the class going. They went back to the sonnet, looking for evidence.

“All of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, ‘She’s in a harbor!’ And, ‘There’s two cities!’” says Wolters. “They’re giving me all this information and we’re highlighting and everybody’s updating their notes.”

Wolters was amazed. She’d rarely seen her kids so excited about learning. And she had no idea they could succeed with such a challenging text. She couldn’t wait to tell her colleagues about what had happened.

Now what?

The eighteen teachers came back together to talk about how the Common Core lessons had gone with their students. It was a mix of teachers from both high and low-performing schools.

A student in the Washoe County public schools reads a book about George Washington. Before Common Core, students rarely read nonfiction in school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

A student in the Washoe County public schools reads a book about George Washington. Before Common Core, students rarely read nonfiction in school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

The teachers were surprised by how well their typically low-performing students did on the lesson. For the most part, those kids worked really hard, and seemed to enjoy the lesson.

But it was a different story with many of the higher performing kids. They were “frustrated with having to slow down, to defend their thinking, to really go deep with text,” says Torrey Palmer. “They were used to reading very quickly, answering a series of comprehension questions, done.”

“Things had just been relatively easy for [the high achievers] to that point,” says Aaron Grossman. Now they were experiencing a challenge, and a lot of them didn’t like it. “They were really struggling, and in some cases getting frustrated and quitting.”

Not all the teachers were blown away by the Common Core sample lesson. Some teachers said they were been doing a version of close reading in their classrooms already. But for most of the teachers, the Common Core lesson was a big – and welcome – change.

“The teachers were saying, ‘This is different. This is what we came into the profession to do,’” says Grossman. (Watch the video below of Washoe County teachers talking about their experience.)

Now the question was, what next? There were all kinds of Common Core meetings and training sessions being scheduled by the school district, but Grossman and Palmer wanted to try their version of Common Core training again: Bring teachers together, talk about the standards, have teachers try a lesson, come back and talk about. It was simple. And teachers were excited about it.

Core Task Project

Aaron Grossman and Torrey Palmer created the Core Task Project. Every three weeks teachers would try a new Common Core lesson and then get together to debrief about it.

Word spread through the school system. Teachers would email each other, mention the Core Task Project in the hallways.

Torrey Palmer works with teachers as part of the Core Task Project. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Torrey Palmer works with teachers as part of the Core Task Project.
(Photo: Emily Hanford)

Even many teachers typically resistant to change have been open to the Common Core in Washoe County, says Torrey Palmer. She thinks it has a lot to do with the fact that the Core Task Project has been teacher led. “It gives teachers a voice,” says Palmer. “This is not something that’s being done to them. They want to do this.”

The Core Task Project now involves hundreds of teachers in more than 1400 classrooms across the Washoe County School district, according to Aaron Grossman. One of the project’s goals is to help teachers make and find good curriculum materials. Publishers stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars selling new Common Core books and products, and there are lots of things out there that say they’re “aligned” to the Common Core. But Grossman says many publishers are just slapping new labels on old products, and he’s suspicious.

“We’ve just got to be really smart about what is available for us,” says Grossman. Teachers can make their own lesson plans and skip the high price tag. “I’d rather have the district pay teachers for their time than pay publishers for their products,” he says.

As for the school district leadership in Washoe County, they’re on board with the teacher-led approach.

“There’s a lot to be said about a grassroots effort,” says Scott Bailey, the chief academic officer. “Teachers are rolling up their sleeves, embracing this transition.”

What do the kids think?

Most of the teachers in Washoe County, Nevada, are on board with the Common Core. But what about the students?

Several students at Reno high school who were interviewed for this documentary admitted they’d never heard of Common Core until their teacher told them a reporter was coming to ask them questions about it. But many of them have noticed a change in the way they’ve been learning over the past couple of years.

“We’re doing more reading in my physics class and we’re doing more analysis in my history class,” says Madi, a senior. “The way that we’re learning now, it seems to encompass so many more different levels of thought.”

Ania, another senior at Reno High, says she really likes the close reading lessons. She remembers doing some lessons like that in advanced classes early in high school, but in standard level classes it was mostly lectures and taking notes.

“It’s like you’re just getting the basics of everything,” she says of lectures. “You’re getting like a term, and a definition, and one example, maybe.”

A student who struggles with reading uses an iPod to listen to text as she reads along. Teachers in Reno say all students can do Common Core if they have the right support. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

A student who struggles with reading uses an iPod to listen to text as she reads along. Teachers in Reno say all students can do Common Core if they have the right support. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

But close reading is different.

“It feels like the point is to actually learn something and to actually gain something from it,” says Ania. “You have to use your brain and you have to struggle a little bit to figure it out. Once you do, you’ve actually gained something from it.”

But not all the students like the changes. Rosie, a junior, misses the days of discussing personal experiences and opinions in class.

Students used to read something, summarize it, “and then we would put our own thoughts and opinions into it,” she says. “And I don’t feel like we do that as much with Common Core. We just try and find the facts. I liked the whole opinion part.”

She says school isn’t as interesting as it was before.

One group of students that many educators and experts are especially concerned about is students with learning disabilities. Those kids are supposed to learn the standards too.

Jodie Westmont, a special education teacher at an elementary school in Washoe County, was really anxious about what Common Core was going to mean for her students. But the more she went to Core Task Project meetings and tried Common Core lessons with her students, the more she became convinced that the new standards were going to be good for special ed kids too.

“My kids were not making progress the way we were doing things before,” says Westmont. “We were dumbing everything down for them and treating them like they couldn’t think. Having a reading disability does not mean you can’t think.”

Westmont is using technology to help her students access texts they would never had been given before. When other students in class are reading silently, her students are often listening to the text on an iPod.

“There is so much technology now to help these kids,” she says. “And it’s giving them access to information and ideas they were excluded from before. They can do Common Core with the right support.”

Kayla, a special ed student who works with Westmont, says she was never assigned the same books as the other kids in her class.

“That was really, really hard,” she says. “Because I want to read what the other kids are reading.”

But at the beginning of sixth grade, when the teacher handed out books, she got the same book everyone else got.

“That was like, really interesting,” Kayla says. “I’m actually reading a sixth grade book! It felt kind of wonderful.”

‘Once those assessments come out’

For many teachers in Washoe County, Common Core has been liberating. They are free from the way textbooks, and tests, had come to define education.

But new tests are coming. Nevada is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups creating Common Core tests for the nation. (Read more: Questioning the Common Core tests.) Students in Nevada will start taking the tests as early as the Spring of 2015.

“Honestly I’m a little frightened,” says Torrey Palmer. She’s seen some sample tests. (Try a Common Core test.) They look hard, and she’s worried that bad test scores will push schools and teachers to retreat to old habits.

“Once those assessments come out and the scores come out, then systems do crazy things to respond and react to them,” she says. “If we go back to just focusing on specific skills or how to take a test, that’s not teaching and learning, and that’s not going to help our kids.”

Teacher Linnea Wolters is trying to be hopeful. “All I have is hope right now, I’m living on it,” she says.

Wolters’s hope is that the new tests will be better than the old ones, and that an education system organized around teaching to that test will be a system she can believe in.

“My hope is that when the test matches great teaching, and the teaching produces great thinking, that it will all work itself out,” she says. “That’s my hope.”

But she shares Palmer’s concerns about what will happen when the first Common Core test scores are released. She’s hoping the students will do well, but she’s never been a big believer in the idea that tests are proof that kids have learned.

For Wolters, the proof is in what she’s seeing in classrooms. She acknowledges there’s a need for objective measures, but she believes it’s impossible to measure what matters most, and that’s whether kids care about what they’re learning.

“You can’t learn when you don’t care,” she says. “And if you can create environments where students care deeply about what they’re doing, learning will follow.”

She believes Common Core is helping teachers in Reno do that.

“I don’t have a number to support that,” she says. But she hopes someday she will.

Episode: Greater Expectations