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With Money Available For Common Core, California Districts Study Their Options

CALIFORNIA — Making the new national Common Core standards a reality in classrooms is a complicated and expensive business. Unusually for California, the money is there. But the tricky part is how to spend it.

“The thing about this work is that no one here has done it before, so we don’t know exactly what we’ll need” to spend for Common Core, says David Christiansen, Fresno’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “Frankly, every district is trying to figure it out. We want to make the right investment around our goals.”

For San Diego city schools, a dedicated committee was created to make recommendations to the Board of Education on how to spend the one-time fund. Teresa Walters heads San Diego Unified's Office of Teaching and Learning and said she expects those recommendations to be ready at the end of the month.

Making good choices is complicated by the sheer volume of new products that claim to be aligned to the Common Core, the ambitious national goals adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia that aim to encourage critical thinking and deeper learning. A multibillion-dollar industry of competing vendors is promoting a dizzying array of new products—textbooks, curriculum, teacher-training workshops, software, laptops, iPads, nonfiction kid magazines, games, even Lego blocks—all meant to help students develop skills such as “evidence-based writing” and mastering fractions.

“A lot of publishers and companies view it as an economic imperative for survival to say they’re aligned to Common Core,” says Theodor Rebarber, founder and CEO of AccountabilityWorks, a Maryland-based advocacy group, and author of a 2012 study that estimated implementation nationally could cost as much as $15.8 billion. However, he says, there has been little objective assessment of how aligned to the Common Core most of these products really are.

In addition, says Jeannette LaFors, of Education Trust-West, a nonpartisan group, few school districts have enough experts on staff to review and compare the products. “There just is not enough direction for educators to choose what’s best,” she says. “It’s like trying to drink from a water hydrant at this point.”

The last time California rolled out new standards, back in 1997-98, the state spent $3 billion, and everything from teacher training to textbooks was prescribed by the state. During the intervening years, national and state tests have generally shown steady improvement, even as the proportion of English learners and minority students rose and funding for public schools fell. Despite those rising scores, however, California’s students’ scores are still below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The state’s role in spending this time will shift.

“This time, we are going to let the pendulum swing the other way,” says Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), a nonprofit that fosters collaboration among California districts. How the money is spent is up to the districts, he says, as long as they restrict themselves to professional development, instructional materials or technology that will help them implement the Common Core, and they’re “public about what they spend it on.”

Having a pot of money to spend on Common Core didn’t seem like much of a possibility even a year ago. Common Core proponents have complained that implementation statewide has been slow and uneven since the state adopted the new standards in 2010. The recession and its aftermath have gotten a lot of the blame. But late last year, just as a report was being readied that placed the state at 49th on national rankings of per pupil spending, things started to turn around for Common Core spending. In November, 55.4 percent of voters approved Prop 30, a seven-year tax hike to raise state education funding. Then in the spring, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that every district in the state would get a proportional slice of $1.25 billion in new tax money this fall with the caveat that it can only be used to implement the Common Core.

This influx of funding isn’t coming a minute too soon, particularly since the state this spring is expected to field test new online assessments that are pegged to the Common Core standards.

To help districts make smart choices, the state education department and Education Trust-West recently posted Common Core implementation guides on their websites. School districts that are part of CORE meet regularly to exchange ideas on how best to transition to the Common Core standards.

Patrick Murphy, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco who recently completed a study on the cost of implementing the Common Core, funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates that the cost of transitioning to the Common Core could be as low as $3 billion nationally if districts forgo traditional options and instead choose digital textbooks (that can more easily be updated), tailored teacher-training videos and free curricula available online. The key, he says, is for districts to avoid a “business as usual” approach.

“It’s silly to buy a lot of stuff off the shelf for hundreds of dollars, when there will be better and cheaper stuff coming online or even available for free,” Murphy says. “Professional development created by large districts can be shared with small districts.” Ideally, he says, educators will create the equivalent of Yelp sites to share reviews of different products, vendors and training programs.

In the meantime, California districts are comparing notes, not just with other California educators, but with those in other states. “There are 45 states that have adopted the Common Core, and cities like New York are forerunners. We’re using that information to shape our work,” says Olivine Roberts, chief academic officer of Sacramento City Unified School District. “We can inform ourselves about what’s working and what resources are out there nationally, not just what’s being used in Sacramento City.”

Gerardo Loera, executive director of Los Angeles Unified’s curriculum office, agreed, adding, “Whenever we are faced with a dilemma of how to tackle specific challenges, we don’t forget the ‘Common’ in Common Core. Likely, it’s a problem that’s been faced by others elsewhere. There’s a lot of open source information that people have put together and we hope to leverage the collective brain power of people working along similar paths.”

Big changes are already evident in some Common Core states. New York required companies and nonprofits bidding to create its Common Core curriculum to agree to post the final product online, where it could be reviewed for free. Florida recently passed a law that requires districts to spend half of their textbook budget on digital materials. Meanwhile, publishers and other education-industry companies are responding to an evolving marketplace. Pearson, an international publishing behemoth, recently disclosed that half of the company’s revenues now come from digital products. “We don’t even want to be called a textbook company anymore,” says Kate Miller, a company spokesperson.

With all this in mind, districts are rethinking their priorities and talking to their school boards about where to make their initial investments. For some, the choices are clear.

"What we're looking at in the short-term is Chromebooks for students," said Theresa Kemper, assistant superintendent of education services for the Grossmont Union High School District. She added that the one-time funding has accelerated the district's technology spending plans.

“Right now we have a number of our classrooms –- probably 25 to 30 percent of the classrooms --have WiFi access across the district," she said. "So we are putting a significant portion of money toward that in order to get 100 percent wifi across all of the district, across all of our classrooms.”

Julian Union Elementary School District, outside San Diego, has an adequate amount of technology “so the bulk of the money will be spent on professional development so our teachers learn different approaches to instruction as they implement the Common Core standards,” says Kevin Ogden, the superintendent.

San Diego's Walters said while the district's plan hasn't been finalized they're looking at spending the money on helping staff develop assessments that students will take through the course of the school year to monitor their progress that align with the new standards. They're also focused on updating instructional materials and providing enough tech support to make field tests of the new online standardized Smarter Balanced tests successful this spring.

The one thing they all agree upon is that smart choices will ultimately make their jobs easier, and increase the chances that Common Core reaches its potential.

“These new standards have the chance to change things,” says Murphy, “and I would hate to see a missed opportunity.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Find out more about Common Core.

Kyla Calvert contributed reporting to this story.