Signing of AB 250 takes big step toward deeper, richer learning for all students

Among many important education bills signed by the governor in October, perhaps none was more vital than AB 250, authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley and sponsored by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. Known as the Curriculum Support and Reform Act of 2011, AB 250 mandates that the state align curriculum frameworks with the new Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts, an action, according to TOPed, “which will put muscle and flesh on the skeleton of the basic standards to better guide teachers on what students are expected to know and be able to do.”

The members of the California Coalition for P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Education) couldn’t agree more and believe AB 250 will come to be recognized as legislation that impacts teaching and learning in California for generations to come. The “muscle and flesh” requires “each curriculum framework to describe how content can be delivered to intentionally build creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication in all content areas.”

Michelle Herczog, P21 California co-chair and past president of the California Council for the Social Studies, states, “Passage of AB 250 will position California to become the 17th P21 state in the nation and equip us to prepare our six million students for college, career and citizenship in the 21st century by focusing attention on building deeper learning skills across all content areas. For example, in history-social science, it calls upon students to think deeply about the “big ideas” of history and apply them in today’s world. In this way, students learn to acquire and apply civic knowledge, skills and dispositions to address real problems as effective citizens in a democratic society.”

Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, president of the Latino School Boards Association, adds, “For too long we have ignored the “4 Cs: Critical thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity, sacrificing deeper learning on the altar of higher multiple-choice test scores. This is especially true with Latinos, African Americans and other underperforming student groups. This bill brings a focus back on effective instruction that gives teachers the space to go deep with instructional and literacy strategies across all curricular areas.”

States that have become P21 Leadership States design new curricular frameworks, assessments, and professional development programs that ensure 21st century readiness for every student. To become a P21 Leadership State, a state demonstrates commitment from the governor and chief state school officer, and submits an application outlining a plan of action.

It is important to note that while many educational leaders have pointed out that an overemphasis on high-stakes testing of mostly English language arts and mathematics has narrowed the curriculum for many low-income, English learner, and African American students, AB 250 does not directly solve the narrowing of the curriculum issue. P21 California member Jose Moreno, chair of Chicano Studies at California State University Long Beach and member of the Anaheim City School District Board of Trustees, states, “Latinos, who now comprise half of all students enrolled in California’s public schools, need the same depth of learning and exposure to a broad curriculum that helps more privileged students to be college and career ready. Folks need to understand that Latino and African American student success is critical for California’s success. Our business leaders understand that and that’s why many supported this bill.”

So let’s be clear: AB 250 does not mandate that a broad curriculum, ideally aligned to career tech education and STEM pathways, be offered to all students. The bill does push for deeper learning in all content areas but falls short of requiring that all content areas get adequate “shelf space” during the instructional day.

Unfortunately, as more and more districts are labeled “failing” by not meeting testing benchmarks in No Child Left Behind and more and more dollars are spent on corrective action to raise test scores in the two subjects most tested, California will exacerbate a growing opportunity gap by denying many low-income, English learner, Latino, and/or African American students access to a broad 21st century curriculum.

This is an ongoing challenge that our governor, state superintendent, and State Board of Education must confront if we are to truly create a well-aligned, seamless pre-K-16 teaching and learning system that will propel us back to world leadership in education. While there is much cause for celebration, when the cheering dies down there is still a lot of work to do.

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.

Inject critical thinking into state standards to think outside the bubble

For nearly a decade, California K-12 schools have been scrutinized based on multiple-choice tests primarily covering two subjects: Reading (Language Arts) and Math. That may explain why many schools, especially “lower performing” ones, have narrowed the curriculum to what’s tested. In many instances, subjects like history, science, world languages, the arts, and career technical education courses have been pared down, and in some cases eliminated, to make room for test-taking and study skills classes. Although some school and district leaders have attempted to maintain a broad curriculum, most have capitulated to the need to save their own hides and raise test scores.

All K-12 students need a breadth of knowledge as well as an understanding of how that content (and the world around them) is interconnected. Parents and community members need to stand up for supporting a full offering of courses for their children. History and science (including STEM), world languages, the arts, and engaging 21st century electives should be offered at every site. In K-6, students should have exposure to a balanced and relevant curriculum that appropriately integrates math and reading.

But effective K-12 education is more than just ensuring a broad array of subjects. Students need to transition from K-12 with skills that they can use and apply to succeed in college and careers. The ability to eliminate the wrong answers on a bubble does little for them other than getting a pizza party or other rewards. Business and higher education leaders lament that more and more students cannot write, communicate, work effectively in groups, and apply knowledge to real problems. They blame K-12 when K-12 has been shackled by the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind and the California High School Exit Exam.

Increasingly however, parents and particularly business and higher education leaders have become aware of the mismatch between K-12 accountability measures and what really needs to be taught.

Fortunately, something is being done.

Over the last several months, the California Coalition Partnership for 21st Century Education has deeply discussed and outlined an overarching purpose for public education that will inspire and unleash the collective potential of 6 million school children. This newly formed group consists of business leaders representing forward-thinking corporations such as Dell, Disney, Apple, and Verizon; educational leaders from the California State PTA, ACSA, school boards, CTA and CFT, the California Science Teachers Association, and the California Mathematics Council; and community organization leaders (see www.p21california.com for a full list).

Building on the energy generated by the California Coalition for P21, Assembly member Julia Brownley and State Sen. Lou Correa are sponsoring two bills (AB 250 and SB 402, respectively) that will give all stakeholders renewed purpose for K-12 education. Correa’s bill would require “each curriculum framework to describe how content can be delivered to intentionally build creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication into and across each content area, to the extent the description is deemed appropriate by the board.”

Currently, curriculum frameworks are written without regard to interconnection and interrelationships among content areas, and do not support application of content knowledge to real-world challenges.

If passed, SB 402 will begin to take pedagogy beyond teaching to the test. Imagine classes where students are asked to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create their own original thoughts through writing and speaking about real-world problems and issues. The Common Core standards will help further the emphasis on performance assessments, having students “show what they know” through writing and speaking (including collaboration), which stimulates critical thinking.

As nationally recognized writing teacher Kelly Gallagher, author of “Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading,” says, “Any teacher worth his or her salt knows that if you really want to measure the level of student thinking, you have to have students write. Answers to multiple-choice questions can often be faked; answers to essay questions cannot. As a staunch advocate for change integrating more thinking and writing, and a member of the California Coalition, Gallagher warns, “We end up with a school system that raises multiple-choice thinkers in an essay world.”

AB 250 attempts to reform several important areas calling for the update of frameworks (aligned with Correa’s bill), professional development, instructional materials, and assessments to align and support the new Common Core standards, which will be implemented in 2014.

Although there is so much at stake if the governor’s anticipated June ballot measure fails, it is discomforting to be forced to ask for voter support when there has been no clear goal other than meeting rigidly prescribed multiple-choice metrics. Those involved with the California Coalition P21 believe that the Brownley/Correa bills will give public education a refocused raison d’etre that can begin to propel our state back to greatness.

For more information about what you can do to change the course of K-12 education, please see www.p21california.com.

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District, and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.

Lots of acronyms, no vision guiding K-12 schools

The iconic Helen Keller once famously stated, “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.” Today we are awash with political leaders who can’t see past their own focus groups. With respect to solving our education crisis, politicians and policy experts call for all sorts of accountability measures and rating metrics. But no one is asking the really big question: “What is our mission?”

Aren’t we supposed to begin with the end in mind? The main problem quite simply is that we have no vision, no guiding blueprint for education. We are completely in the dark compared with Keller, a suffragist and social activist.

Quick, ask anyone in the system from the superintendent to a principal to a teacher, “What is the purpose of K-12 education in California?” It’s likely you’ll get a blank stare followed by how well their school is doing on the AYP or API or CAHSEE, all acronyms for various state or federally mandated multiple-choice tests, mostly in just two subjects, Reading and Math.

However, if you were to ask a parent, student, or business person, you’d likely get a different answer. Former national and California state PTA President Jan Domene said this about what’s needed for education: “More than ever, parents want their children to graduate with the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for an extremely competitive global job market. Unfortunately, we find too many schools focused on the two subjects that are tested, and are consequently teaching kids strategies for success on standardized tests and not for success in the workforce or university. At the end of the day, parents want a whole curriculum, a relevant curriculum, and an assessment system that supports writing, thinking, real-world problem solving and innovation. Isn’t that what made America great?”

The American Management Association (AMA) would agree. According to a recent survey conducted by the AMA, national business executives say they need a workforce fully equipped with skills beyond just the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic in order to grow their businesses. Skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation (the four Cs) will become even more important to organizations in the future.

Proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic has traditionally been the entry-level threshold to the job market, but the new workplace requires more from its employees. They also need the content knowledge that goes beyond Reading and Math and includes science, social studies, visual and performing arts, career education that integrates STEM, and world languages. This balanced and relevant curriculum will help students make interconnections leading to innovation and help them be prepared to solve some of the biggest problems and challenges facing our great nation.

Fortunately, a national forward-thinking group of business and education minds has taken the lead in showing the way for us by developing a framework for education called Partnership for the 21st Century. This framework, which has the support of such creative corporations as Apple, Intel, and the Walt Disney Corporation, as well as the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians, provides a concrete blueprint for California to once again lead the way and become the economic engine it is capable of being.

Cognizant of the severe budget crisis, the California Coalition for P21 calls for state leaders to move forward on integrating P21 language and goals as frameworks, standards, assessments, and compliance monitoring instruments are updated and as funding permits. Additionally, coalition members have met with both candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction to inform them of the urgency of leading the way.

Fifteen states are already on board with P21 and are developing new standards and assessments aligned with “Common Core” that will prepare students for success in a global economy. California needs to become the 16th state now if we are to ever again to live up to our moniker as the “Golden State.” We cannot afford to wait.

Michael Matsuda is coordinator for Quality Teacher Programs with the Anaheim Union High School District, and president of the North Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees.