Stanislaus schools weigh in as high school math curriculum gets makeover under Common Core

naustin@modbee.comNovember 24, 2013 

  • PRACTICES FOR EVERY GRADE

    • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

    • Attend to precision.

    • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

    • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

    • Model with mathematics.

    • Use appropriate tools strategically.

    • Look for and make use of structure.

    • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

    Source: The California Department of Education – Common Core State Standards

— Algebra classes may disappear under Common Core, but nobody gets out of solving for X.

Every grade gets a math makeover, focusing on learning the basics really well. But the most dramatic change will be in high school, where traditional algebra I, geometry, algebra II courses will phase out in most districts in favor of a I, II, III progression weaving all three topics together.

Teachers piloting the interwoven system in Modesto City Schools say they see real progress. The teens like the slower pace and working with partners to argue out solutions.

“There’s more word problems, for sure,” said Enochs High School sophomore Bryanna Torres. But even though the work is harder, she said, it makes more sense. “It’s complicated, but it messes with your brain so you’re thinking even more.”

Compared with the standard algebra class he took last year, classmate Eddie Rodriguez said, the Common Core system is an improvement. “It’s easier. It’s more, but everybody gets a piece of the work,” he said.

Arguing out solutions with a group instead of the talking-is-cheating mindset of other classes was the biggest — and best — change, dozens of kids said.

“If you don’t get something, you always have someone helping you out, so you’re not, like, failing,” said Karli Köch. But the homework is a wash, she added. “We have less homework, but each problem has a whole lot of parts. So it seems like less, but it’s really not.”

Koch also takes the Enochs secondary math I class taught seventh period by Christina Rubalcava. The teacher said she’s seeing solid progress in students who were not really getting algebra taught the old way. “They get to explore and really get the foundation of why (a formula) works,” she said.

As a teacher, she reflected, “There are challenges. But I find myself refreshed at the end of seventh period instead of being tired at the end of the day. I’m not doing all of the work. They’re doing some of the thinking.”

Secondary math is the Modesto City Schools name for the I, II, III series that over three years will replace algebra and geometry courses at their high schools, starting with all of next year’s freshmen. Campuses in Turlock, Ceres, Patterson, Oakdale, Waterford and Hughson will also switch to the same integrated math progression.

Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said its seventh and eighth grades will start the new system next year, rolling up to high schools in 2015. The Oakdale Unified School District will start the rollout in seventh grade, moving over five years to full implementation, said Superintendent Marc Malone.

Teens taking the integrated strand will be best-prepped for the 11th-grade test colleges will be looking at, a match of test questions to course materials shows, said Erin Cross with the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Taking that year away from algebra for geometry could cost them. “It’s a use-it-or-lose it situation. They get rusty,” she said. Cross is taking the lead in helping districts countywide implement Common Core math.

Even where algebra classes remain, “they’re not your mother’s algebra course,” said Rick Bartkowski, assistant superintendent at the county office.

Statistics and exponential functions have been added in Common Core algebra, with other topics reorganized, Cross said. Like fractions in elementary grades, algebra is a pivot point for secondary students — those who don’t get it will struggle going forward.

Overlaid on the academic concerns are the politics of algebra. “When algebra became the eighth-grade standard in California, there was a great deal of parental pressure to move students through geometry by eighth grade,” said Patterson Unified School District Superintendent Phil Alfano. “This needs to be re-evaluated,” he said. “They need to truly master the concepts and not whiz through the coursework.”

Despite parental pride in a fast-moving math student, a 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found eighth-grade algebra-takers overall did not understand the coursework as well and tended to do worse in future math courses. Common Core slips in using symbols or drawings for numbers as early as first grade, but the heavy lifting it saves for high school, after key concepts get cemented in middle school years.

Math expert David Foster, in a Gallo Center for the Arts presentation sponsored this month by Modesto City Schools, argued against pushing top students ahead until after a solid grounding in those junior high basics. “The most important math university students need is proportional reasoning,” he said. “That’s in sixth and seventh grade under Common Core.”

“For years we’ve been telling parents, ‘Whoever gets to calculus first wins!’” Foster said. But kids who failed algebra as eighth-graders tend to fail it again. “Then it’s not algebra for all, it’s algebra forever,” he said.

At Modesto High School, Amy Chavkin said the old standards rushed past foundational skills. “There’s no point in teaching 17 chapters if they only understood two,” she said. Chavkin, also a pilot class teacher, likes the interwoven approach. “Making those connections for kids makes it infinitely simpler,” she said.

Teaching seven more substantive units gives her time to really make sure they get it. “It’s teaching how I wanted to teach 20 years ago,” she said. “Now I have the tools to do it.”

Experts also talked about Common Core at an Association of California School Administrators meeting last week in Modesto.

New teachers need to have those tools, too. Oddmund Myhre, dean of the College of Education at California State University, Stanislaus, said his students will be ready. “I see great potential,” he said. “I think it’s a good time to enter education.”

“Common Core is a big change, but the fundamentals of good teaching haven’t changed,” said Niki Santo of Brandman University, Modesto campus. Much of the creativity and energy of the new teaching strategies will feel familiar to veteran teachers, she predicted. “There’s a doughnut hole,” she said, a generation of teachers trained in No Child Left Behind drills and lectures, who will face the largest shift.

But Cross, who has taught hundreds of teachers the Common Core basics, said the system works and will be far better for children.

“We’re approaching this like it’s Y2K,” Cross said. “But we’ve been through changes before. We’re going to keep teaching. It’s going to be fine.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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