Taking a Lesson in New Math Standards


Many students fall off the math train when the tracks switch between algebra and geometry.  If algebra doesn’t make sense, it’s hard to make the leap, much less go on to calculus, say experts in math education who spoke at a special school district board meeting Monday about new state standards for teaching math.

Understanding high school calculus, they said, is the marker for a successful college math education and the starting point for further studies in math and science.

Three experts from the Orange County Education Department were invited to explain the new math teaching standards mandated by the state, known as the Common Core standards.

Rhonda Cameron, head of OCED’s math department, and assistants Vanessa Cerrahoglu and Jody Guarino, said the new standards will individualize teaching rather than the traditional approach of general worksheet and test-taking.  Cameron said the goal is to ensure that every student is “ready for the university, a career and a successful life in a global economy.”

The new standards, which are being rolled out nationwide, were sparked by complaints from businesses around the country that job applicants did not possess needed skills, such as the ability to collaborate, write factual essays citing text-based evidence and communicate clearly and directly. Cameron said that retiring baby-boomers are expected to leave a shortage of 1.5 million workers in the U.S.

Instruction by Laguna’s teachers this year includes the new, nonfiction essay writing standards and will focus on math next year, said Darlene Messinger, assistant superintendent in charge of instructional services.

Rather than concentrating on getting the right answer, as in the traditional approach, the new math standards will offer levels of learning where students will learn how to explain as well as complete mathematical procedures, solve problems through collaborating on strategies, effectively argue their solutions and use modeling and analysis to resolve real-world problems.

The more conceptual rather than linear approach is being tested by teachers at public school districts throughout the state this year and will be officially implemented in the 2014-15 school year. Students at Laguna schools are already practicing with the new math tests.

Kris Howson, the mother of a sixth-grader at Thurston Elementary School, said the new approach being tested by teachers is causing setbacks with her daughter.

“She’s a high-achiever in math,” Howson said. “This year has thrown a huge curve in her math career.  She’s getting 60 percents and 70 percents on tests.” Howson said she hired a tutor twice a week who can’t figure out the word problems. “My question is do we have the support for kids who are typically doing well but aren’t grasping these concepts?”  Howson pointed out that there’s only one teacher for 30 students and not enough time for the individual coaching proposed by the new standards.

A sixth-grade math teacher at Thurston, Maria Hoffman responded to the board’s query for teacher input by saying that the “less is more” approach is making her job less stressful and more productive with each student.

Board member Ketta Brown said she understood parents’ concerns about the effectiveness of the unknown academic approach.

“I’m terrified we’re going to do it wrong,” said Brown, “and there’s not a lot of do-over with kids.  It’s very scary.”

At UC Irvine, 40 percent of incoming high school students taking math classes need remedial work to catch up to college levels, said Guarino, an OCED math coordinator and UCI math lecturer.  To lower that percentage, Guarino said the Common Core math strategy is to work with each student at their level until they catch up to the expected efficiency.

Referred to as the biggest change in public education in 30 years, the problem, the experts stated in the three-part presentation, is that the linear approach to teaching math, which was stressed in standards from 1997, leaves students confused and frustrated when they try to apply something like algebra to real-life situations.  Understanding the concept, they said, makes math more useable.

“A lot of what we do in our world now is data-driven,” said Guarino.  Cameron stated that learning the language of math is crucial due to the pervasive use of technology.

Traditionally, teachers have been trained to cover a lot of material on a surface level, Guarano said.  With common core, the topics are narrower and taught at a deeper level for greater overall understanding, known as cognitively guided instruction or CGI.

Children, the experts said, are quick to pick up the linear number facts at an early age, but by sixth grade, they’re completely confused by math word problems because they were never taught the concept behind numbers.  They were taught to memorize facts, which didn’t translate to everyday math situations that required numbers knowledge. District superintendent Sherine Smith said she lost interest in algebra in high school because she’d never use it in the real world, echoing a sentiment of many people who categorized themselves as “not a math person.”

“This will help them in situations they’ve never seen before,” said presenter Cerrahoglu. “That’s what life is, right?”

The tipping point for most high school students is algebra 1, said Joanne Culverhouse, high school principal, and that students fall apart at algebra 2 because the conceptual foundation and deeper understanding are missing.  The new system, according to the experts, will teach children to play with the concept of numbers all the way through the grade schools, providing a solid foundation for high school.

Four years of math are required for entrance to most colleges and universities, but Culverhouse said she’s finding that high school students stop taking math after three years.

A new earth sciences class at the high school, which is being presented for approval as a college prerequisite, will continue to develop algebra proficiency, Culverhouse said.  The class will be co-taught by both a science and a math teacher.

The common core standards, the panel agreed, don’t give the students more to do. Rather, they provide a greater challenge rather than a neat linear package.  Cerrahoglu, who is Turkish, added the Turkish salutation to her presentation, “Kolay gelsin,” which means “May it come easy.”

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