Nan Austin

Modesto City Schools keeps integrated math in close vote

The Modesto City Schools Board came within one vote of moving to scrap its Common Core integrated math program three years after a quick flip to full implementation.

In a tense vote Monday, a motion to stay the course narrowly passed 4-3.

To upend such a major shift would require a lot more discussion, said Board President Sue Zwahlen, who voted with Amy Neumann, Chad Brown and David Allan to make the majority. “We would need parent input, teachers, student input. I’m not ready to make a change (tonight),” she said. “This is a really important decision.”

Trustees John Walker, Cindy Marks and Steve Grenbeaux voted against the motion to keep integrated math in place, saying the new system isn’t working and a shift back to the old progression – algebra, geometry, trigonometry, more algebra and calculus – would be better.

In a non-binding vote, student trustee Dominic Barandica also dissented, saying he loved doing math the old way. Under Common Core, he said, “It’s hard for kids to try and everyone feels confused.”

The change happened fast in Modesto, which tried to hew to the tested standards until the last possible year. Teachers had a year to train and plan. Students walking into class in 2014-15 found the familiar textbook drill and quiz routine gone. To say the implementation was rocky is an understatement.

A senior, Barandica never took the integrated math series. His was the last class to be grandfathered through the old progression because switching to the integrated series mid-high school was seen as too difficult.

But Walker, a software engineer and vocal critic of Common Core, proposed to do that switch in reverse Monday. He asked that trustees to put students back into a single-topic string of classes – under the old standards and old texts was his preference, but at least the Common Core version of those courses.

“The system wasn’t broken,” Walker stressed. Students, over time, were showing improvement under the old standards, he said, saying low achievement was explained by student demographics.

“Even if we move to traditional, it will not look like traditional math,” responded Neumann. “It’s a whole different way of looking at this, and it’s hard. It’s not going to get back to the way it was.”

Integrated math, by contrast, teaches the same material mixing in all types of math, using a progression of difficulty rather than a parade of topics. Besides the problem of a second seismic shift since 2014-15 for students, changing direction would call for retraining all the district’s math teachers, several of whom are working with county and state educators to improve the existing system.

District numbers show more students are moving into third year math courses in high school and fewer – though only slightly – are failing algebra, the course that for so long has held so many teens back. Bad memories of algebra are so widespread, even the word typically elicits groans and grimaces.

Under Common Core, the first hints of algebra can be seen in how kindergarten problems are worded. Shown a picture with three flowers in one box, five in the other, youngsters are asked how to make the boxes the same. Finger counting ensues, yes, but at a very basic level these budding mathematicians are solving for X.

The state’s computerized tests, in place since 2015, are taken by all high school juniors regardless of math level. The results show a quarter of Modesto’s teens proficient in math in 2016, 25 percent, up from 21 percent the year before.

But within that number different groups are achieving at very different rates. Only 5 percent of poor, black students passed the bar in 2016, while 78 percent fell in the bottom group of test takers. At the other end of the spectrum, 68 percent of middle class or better Asian students achieved proficient, with only 8 percent falling in the lowest group.

“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,”Modesto Superintendent Pam Able said. “But they’re actually performing better than expected with the integrated math.”

She urged trustees to vote against the switch back.

“We need so much more input,” Able said. “It’s not just a rip-a-Band-Aid-off and make it work.”

Common Core comes with wonky language and weird graphs that have parents hating it. The redeeming value is in the shift to more hands-on teaching.

One of the best descriptions I’ve heard came from San Diego State’s Joe Johnson, considered an expert in transforming schools. He was not describing Common Core, but how excellent teaching looks, in a talk at California State University, Stanislaus, last month.

Here is a slice of a slide presentation given Monday talking about Common Core’s push for better understanding: “Math standards promote problem solving, communication and critical thinking. Students develop conceptual understanding procedural skill and fluency, and application through rich tasks on real world problems.”

Still awake? Here is Johnson’s description of better understanding, what Common Core aspires to, using what a principal told him had changed as his school improved.

“(The principal) said, it’s not just enough to see that they have ingested the information. We want to see that they actually digested it. That it has become part of them. That they can apply it. That they can use it. That they can make sense out of it. That they can stand up and teach it to the kid sitting next to them. That they can explain how it’s different from this and similar to that and really show that it has some power for them,” Johnson said.

“That’s what real access means in these very high performing schools. It’s not just about covering the standards.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin