The state's Aug. 2 approval of the Obama administration's Common Core Standards will modernize a curriculum not revised since 1997, get the state on the same page as 33 other states across the country, and make local public schools eligible for federal dollars and aid.
Among the updates to the state curriculum are reading requirements that emphasize nonfiction, science and technical texts, which are aimed at preparing kids for careers in science and technology. Additionally, a "staircase" approach to teaching is meant to ensure that students master lower-level concepts in greater depth before moving on to more advanced concepts.
"I think it's a good idea," said Mary Lairon, associate superintendent for the Mountain View Whisman School District. By adhering to nationally recognized standards, she said, the federal government will become "an incredible resource for us for materials."
It will also make things easier for private textbook manufacturers, who won't have to make as many editions of their publications to fit the disparate needs of various states' curricula, she said.
Lairon was not as impressed with the funding Mountain View Whisman will be eligible to receive as a result of joining the roster of Common Core states. Adopting the standards will boost the state's chances of earning all $700 million of federal Race to the Top dollars for which it is eligible. By the time that money gets distributed among all the school districts in California, it will be "a drop in the bucket," she said.
Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, said the changes that schools in his district will see are still a few years off. He said one of the biggest advantages of the program will be to students who move from one Common Core state to another. Since state curricula will be more uniform, students who move will have an easier time picking up where they left off.
"I'm supportive of that effort," Groves said.
There is no firm timeline in place for when the state will begin unrolling the newly adopted standards, according to Maria Lopez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.
First the state must review which parts of its curriculum are already in line with Common Core Standards. The department must then decide how to use the flexibility built into the program to best suit the needs of California. The Common Core Standards require that states integrate 85 percent of the federal curriculum, but allow wiggle room with the remaining 15 percent.
Significant portions of the standards were modeled after California's current state curriculum, Lopez said. Many of the changes in the new federal standards come as a result of a job market that values technical knowledge more than ever before.
Although the new federal standards emphasize more nonfiction, technical and scientific readings in English classes, Lopez said that literature will still be a major component of language-arts learning in the state. The standards, however, aim to introduce students to a wider variety of writing styles earlier, so that they are better equipped for college and technical careers when they graduate.
"We need to prepare children for the world we live in today, not the world that we came from," said Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent of educational services for Mountain View-Los Altos.
Sarraf noted that when she was young it was common for children to take Latin and Greek in high school. The times have changed, she said, and we now live in a world where the "understanding of science and the ability to problem-solve and read a nonfiction text is very important."
The Common Core Standards address these needs, Sarraf said — without abandoning literature and the humanities.
"We are not throwing out literature or saying that we no longer value it," she said. "The standards are striving for a healthy balance."
Lopez said that the "staircase" approach was introduced in part to respond to a common critique of California's curriculum — that it is a "mile wide and an inch deep."
Sarraf said that under the new standards, students will be exposed to fewer concepts, but will be driven to drill deeper into each. "It's a focus on depth as opposed to breadth," she said.
In the staircase approach, students will also be exposed to little bits of larger concepts, one piece at a time. For example, Sarraf said, students in elementary school may be introduced to the concept that letters are used not only to form words, but that they also may represent numbers. That way, when they reach middle school and begin learning algebra, the concept of a mathematical variable will seem less foreign to them.
Sarraf, who lived in Germany until she was 16 and has education colleagues working throughout Europe and Asia, said that the new standards are more in line with the way the rest of the world teaches its students. She said that the adoption of such a standardized system of education in America is overdue.
"I'm happy that we're moving in this direction," Sarraf said.