TRUCKEE, Calif. — Upon discussion, teammates Clara Pedrazzini and Isabelle Salmon each placed a five-pound weight into their barge, causing it to sink lower and the water surrounding it to rise.
Eagerly watching this unfold were Pedrazzini’s and Salmon’s fellow fourth- and fifth-grade Donner Trail Elementary classmates, who would soon be testing how much weight their barges could hold before sinking.
“There’s nothing like learning by doing,” said Judi Finney, their teacher.
Prior to this March 14 presentation, the students learned science and math concepts such as displacement, buoyancy and volume by seeing and doing, all in preparation to build their barges and estimate the weight they could hold.
“What I tried to do was take some potentially challenging concepts and make it easy,” said Derek Wogsland, project instructor and Donner Trail parent. “There are a lot of things that if you look at it the right way, they’re easy. If it’s taught in a different way, it might not be as easy.”
This project — performed by all 65 Donner Trail Elementary students — reflects a national shift in education known as Common Core State Standards.
IN A NUTSHELL
Common Core is designed to provide youth with knowledge and skills they need to be college- and career-ready in the 21st century, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
“We want to increase problem-solving and critical-thinking skills because knowing a bunch of facts is one thing, but being able to use those facts to do something is really where we need to be,” said Rick Pomeroy, a faculty member at UC Davis’ School of Education, in a past education lecture at Lake Tahoe. Pomeroy is also president of the California Science Teachers Association and director of the UC Davis Young Scholars Program.
California adopted Common Core on Aug. 2, 2010, and is one of 45 original states to do so, not including the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity.
Common Core is not a curriculum, but rather a set of knowledge and skill expectations for K-12 students. Decisions on how to implement the standards are made at the state and local levels.
Full implementation of the standards — limited to math and English language arts for now — is planned for the California 2014-15 school year.
In anticipation, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has been prepping for Common Core for years.
“It’s a giant job to switch,” Finney said. “It’s not just about going to buy new text books or curriculum; it’s a huge shift in thinking and delivering information, assessing.”
For students, gone will be the multiple choice, fact-recall bubble exams, replaced by tests with questions and performance tasks to measure critical thinking and problem solving.
“It’s all about that metacognition — applying, transferring and synthesizing what you’ve learned from one situation to the next,” Finney explained, since Common Core encourages knowing less of a wide range of material, but at a greater depth.
Under the old standards, the project performed by Donner Trail students would have involved them individually reading about buoyancy and displacement in a textbook before answering questions.
It’s a change Finney supports.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” she said. “I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I think this is one of the most important shifts in education ever because we’re educating kids for the real world and real careers.”
Common Core is not without its skeptics, however.
Criticisms include its educational benchmarks, lack of field testing and the implementation process, among others.
In February, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, called the roll-out of Common Core in many states as “completely botched.”
He added that while NEA members don’t want to go back to rote memorization and bubble tests that drove teaching and learning for No Child Left Behind, “a strong course correction” is needed moving forward. He advised policymakers should work with educators and give them time and resources to learn the standards, develope a curriculum aligned to the standards and field-test them in classrooms.
“There’s too much at stake for our children and our country to risk getting this wrong,” Roekel wrote.
On March 24, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation, making his state the first to opt out of Common Core after being one of the 45 states to adopt it.
“I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level,” Pence said in a statement. “... Indiana has taken an important step forward in developing academic standards that are written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, and are uncommonly high.”
Development of Common Core was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
“You’re never going to get 100 percent agreement on what’s best for kids,” Finney said. “However, the universities and colleges and employers are telling educators, people aren’t prepared to work and think. ... We need to fix that.”
And projects similar to the barge — such as a pulley project Donner Trail students are working on now to learn about ratios and fractions — can help.
“It’s all those real life job skills that you would need,” Finney said. “... Everyone needs to be able to communicate, and most people need to be able to present at some point in their job, and for sure, you need to be able to problem solve.”