Common Core math: guest post from a parent

UPDATE March 8: I’m turning off comments on this post. Thanks for everyone who has responded thoughtfully thus far, but there are some assertions being made that I believe are  wrong — for example, that achievement data taken from two years before Common Core implementation somehow sheds light on the quality of instruction at Mission HS today — that I can’t address without taking time I don’t have to research the question. So apologies, but I’m not going to post assertions I think are wrong without being able to properly answer them.

I’m grateful to Matt Brauer, a parent of two girls who attend SFUSD schools — one in elementary and one in middle school. Matt and I have been corresponding for almost a year about the district’s new Common Core math sequence, and I am very appreciative of the spirit with which he’s approached the change: cautiously, with an open mind and yet with some clear misgivings. I asked him to write a guest post about his “take” on the math changes and he obliged:

Some time ago I wrote a letter to Board of Education member Rachel Norton. I was concerned that my daughters were expressing boredom with math, and worrying that the in-class experiences they were having would diminish their joy of learning the subject. I was especially annoyed at some of the district rhetoric about differentiated instruction and an end to tracking. Also, I told her that while I’m a fan of what the CCSS is trying to accomplish, it was not clear to me that the curriculum necessitated heterogeneous classrooms, and that I felt like the district was using the curriculum change as an excuse to pursue other agendas. Finally, I wrote that the district has been notorious for talking a good game but not following through with the resources needed to implement the plan. (Differentiation is hard, and it’s not clear how much buy-in there is from the teachers, or if they have the training and prep time to do it well.)

It was kind of late at night and I may have sounded a bit cranky. Still, Rachel forwarded my concerns to the SFUSD math department, and as a result two members of the math department–the math administrator and the STEM executive director–contacted me to see if I would talk with them. We met for about an hour at a cafe near my daughters’ school. They listened while I laid out my concerns, and I listened while they told me about their goals and those of the Common Core State Standards.

I was already a big fan of the Common Core, but Lizzy Barnes and Jim Ryan convinced me even more of its value. Primary and secondary math instruction in this country has been caught in an historical eddy, and the consequences have been obvious to anyone who reads about student achievement across cultures. The problem has not been helped by merely jumping up the intensity of the curriculum: as Jim pointed out, the number of AP Calculus exams taken has been increasing every year, but the number of students entering STEM programs at the college level has been flat (and it’s even worse at the graduate level). Clearly, adding more challenging material is not sufficient to induce a love for the material.

The Common Core takes a pragmatic and empirical approach to find out what works to get students excited about math. A product of 15 years or more of research, the curriculum has learned from other country’s successes, as well as from innovative research in this country. On a personal level, as someone who applies my graduate statistics education on a daily basis, I’ve been impressed with at least the occasional extra-credit material my daughter has been bringing home. The material may seem confusing or rudimentary at times (the first unit in Math 8 is “Counting”) but there are deep concepts being taught, towards the development of strong mathematical intuition. The curriculum focuses on the creative, and less on calculation. As Jo Boaler—one of the strongest academic proponents of the Common Core—related in a recent talk, math consists of at least four parts: 1. asking the right question; 2. modeling the question mathematically; 3. doing the computation; 4. relating the answer to the original problem. Historically, it’s mainly been just one step—calculation—that’s been taught, while the other three steps represent the creative process that comprises most of mathematical insight.

These other steps can be highly social, and indeed, there is also a strong social component in how the Common Core is being implemented. Students do less of the endless timed worksheets and instead collaborate to address complex problems. In the process, it is hoped, students of all abilities and backgrounds begin to develop mathematical creativity. This heterogeneity in the classroom is supposed to allow students to dive as deeply as they are inclined and able.

But how critical a feature is heterogeneous instruction to the Common Core? There is an astounding level of variation among middle school students in interest, attentiveness, ability, even age. (For example, there is a nearly two year age range in my daughter’s math class). Even given the best curriculum in the world, why would we expect that a range of complex math concepts could be taught equally to all within a grade level? In another anecdote, Jim Ryan told me how in Singapore dividing-by-fractions is taught in fifth grade, rather than in fourth as in the US. “Why was this?” US educators wanted to know. It was because, according to empirical data, it “worked better” to teach the concept at a later time. The fact that this concept can be better taught by delaying it a year implies that there are developmentally appropriate times to teach various math concepts. I hope that no teacher would argue that all students in a grade are at the same developmental stage. So why would we treat them as if they are?

The district and many academic researchers assert that in teaching all students to a higher level, all students will benefit. The paper cited most often to support this is Burris et al.’s 2006 study, which does indeed show modest gains for all students taught in a heterogeneous classroom. But a couple of things have always bothered me about the use of this study. First, although the study neglected to report class sizes, it made clear that all students were given access to intensive algebra workshops every other day, in groups of four students. (Note that there is no comparable investment by the SFUSD.) Second, the study’s school was offering eighth graders a course equivalent to Algebra 1. SFUSD’s implementation of the Common Core appears to defer algebra to ninth grade. So in what sense exactly is this supposed to represent an “accelerating” of math achievement? It looks like the eighth grade algebra class is being moved to ninth grade, and all students are being placed in a heterogeneous “Math 8” course. Also, it’s troubling that this one paper is given so much weight to carry. In statistics-heavy fields like medical genetics or neuropsychology, the findings of a study are not worth committing to until they’ve been replicated—in another population, by other researchers with other agendas. Has nothing been done in this field since Burris’ 2006 publication? Have there been other papers that have not had quite as strong results? Has Burris given us the last word on heterogeneous classrooms and the achievement gap? Is this paper to provide the primary blueprint for instruction at all levels of achievement?

And this is the crux of my concern. SFUSD has had a laser-like like focus on reducing the achievement gap and, conversely, a very mediocre commitment to engaging with students who need extra challenges. My interactions with the district’s GATE coordinator have been particularly distressing: at one point she clearly stated that GATE-identified children are part of the cause of the achievement gap. This attitude is reflected in the resources allocated to the GATE program: beyond those needed to identify kids as GATE, there are NO resources allocated. (And GATE identification simply for the sake of labeling and lacking any meaningful follow-up, is about as toxic of a situation as could be imagined.) It appears that, for the sake of addressing the achievement gap, the district has abandoned a real sense of responsibility to make sure that “joyful learners” in math stay that way. As the father of daughters, as one who knows that girls face ever increasing social challenges to their innate interest in math and science, the implications of this policy break my heart. (Furthermore, for these kids math has become a challenge-free subject. The unrealistic sense of accomplishment that they have from effortlessly getting an ‘A’ every semester will not survive its first contact with a college-level course.)

The ideas behind Common Core are sound. And I do believe that–given good teachers–the curriculum has the potential to be transformative. The Math Department of SFUSD is in the hands of some very dedicated and skilled educators who also clearly love the subject, and it’s encouraging that they are very interested in engaging with parents. (I haven’t always found that to be the case with other parts of the district.) But I question the district’s ability to carry off such a profound change as this. Teachers have in some cases been given no more than three hours of professional development for implementing the Common Core: it’s hard to see how students can leapfrog over moribund attitudes towards math when their teachers have not been given the tools to do so themselves.

The district’s implementation of the Common Core is part of a gigantic experiment. It may be a worthy one, but it’s one in which we and our children are the research subjects. As parents we need to account for the possibility that the findings of Burris and others cannot be replicated, and that our hopes for the success of the program are in vain. We need to prepare our children by providing extra-curricular enrichment opportunities where the district is not willing to. We need to monitor the progress of the curriculum’s deployment, and hold the district accountable for claims stated and promises made. And we need to continue to engage with the educational visionaries driving the process, to make sure that they know, every step of the way, how the experiment is progressing.


16 responses to “Common Core math: guest post from a parent

  1. Hello Everyone,

    I would like to say thank you to Commissioner Norton for being receptive to both sides of the debate.

    I myself am a student at Lowell HS and have started to talk with students about this issue. If you are interested in seeing the students or teachers perspectives at my HS, I encourage you to read the following articles from our newspaper: The Lowell.

    These links will give you a little insight into how much us students care about this issue and how concerned we really are.

  2. John Monson

    Agree on the great post. Thanks Matt. And, I really like Commissioner Norton’s summary that the parent community is saying “we don’t believe you”. And, I think there are good reasons not to believe them. I did some analysis looking at the 2013 test data (last year available) and the math results for all kids and especially for economically disadvantaged kids are dramatically higher for the cohort of middle schools with honors classes compared to those without (using differentiated instruction). Two years ago SFUSD middle schools were much better at teaching math with an honors track than using differentiated instruction.

    I have a second grader at Daniel Webster and I teach an afterschool math game club for second and third graders. I see the power of teaching Numbers and Math Sense. The kids that are taking to this are racing ahead with deep understanding of numbers and power problem solving skills. So, I believe in the potential of this methogology. But, it doesn’t work with all kids. I have kids in my after school class that are still counting on their fingers and kids that can solve complex word problems and do double digit multiplication in their head. Providing curriculum, even in the simplistic world of my math game club, is very difficult and takes a ton of thought.

    What troubles me is that we are taking away one of the proven teaching structures (honors track) and replacing it with a new curriculum, hard enough, but then also the structure (differentiated instruction) that the data shows we are less good at.

    It would seem to be far more prudent to continue with the structure that is working while integrating the new curriculum. Then we should invest in differentiated learning experiments to see if we can develop a program that is proven to be more effective in our own classrooms and then replacing the existing proven structures, instead of throwing them out with the hope that we can do better.

  3. SFUSD doesn’t just have a PR problem that can be fixed with better communication after decisions are made. Community input needs to be a part of the decision making process. The BOE and SFUSD leadership should be actively seeking out community input and fostering community engagement. When the BOE adopted the math sequence under the misnomer of CCSS-M, it buried a significant policy change and bypassed community input. It was not unlike the push to make student assignment changes during summer meetings, when parents are least engaged. It is heartening to see that both the middle school math sequence and your proposed SAS changes are now receiving the attention important policies deserve.

  4. @Lee. Yes! Restoring Prop. 13 to its original intent of protecting primary residences would be wonderful and key to funding our public education system. Thank you for mentioning that. If we could all get on board and help restore Prop. 13 to its original vision and cut out the commercial tax loophole it would help our entire public education system. It is a tough fight because corporate real estate interests own billions of dollars worth of real estate and they enjoy the tax subsidy. They can basically hold on to properties and re-finance them, pulling out tax free equity to invest, while getting the benefit of Prop. 13. This is great from a business perspective but pretty terrible for our children who now face poorly funded public schools and an unaffordable, state-based higher education system which is supposed to be the backbone of social mobility and economic growth. Yes, the board and district work hard. I would never disagree. I just think that there needs to be more campaigning in terms of funding rather than cutting programs, juggling resources, and under-paying public school teachers and others who do important work on behalf of the common good. For too long, SFUSD has been a “good sport” to the detriment of the quality of education and the quality of working conditions for those who do this truly valuable work.

  5. Jose Quinteiro

    Kids being bored in 7th grade math is not a leap for me, it’s a reality. This “implementation phase” you speak of is the reason why my son is no longer enrolled in public school.

    We were willing to live with the boredom. He hates work in general and school in particular, and that’s just too bad. We all had to do it and so will he.

    He particularly hates writing. Getting him to do his English essays on time would often mean hours of cajoling him. With the Common Core curriculum implementation, every class became like English class. To use the example from last night, when asked what 3 times 4 is he would write down “12” and get marked down for not writing a complete English sentence. It was frustrating for him to have to come up with explanations for things that are intuitively obvious to him. He can see how a 12 has three 4s in it, or six 2s. It snaps together in his mind like a puzzle.

    We were wiling to live with the extra writing, and with his math grade suffering from it. Writing is an important skill, and so is explaining things to others.

    He is a reserved and introspective little man. He doesn’t like to talk in general, and does not like to talk to people he doesn’t know well in particular. Now he was required to talk in every class, and to randomly assigned groups of his classmates.

    We were willing to live with that because it’s important to learn social skills in school. There are many instances in life when you’re forced to deal with people with whom you don’t want to interact.

    The final straw came the night he was working on his math homework and was visibly angry about it. I asked him what was the matter. He didn’t want to talk about it because he doesn’t like to talk. I kept at it and eventually got him to sputter “this is order of operations! We’ve done order of operations four times! I got it the first time, and the second time, and the third time! I don’t need to do another 50 exercises on it!” He was on the verge of tears of rage and frustration.

    We are not willing to live with this. We will not have our kids taught that math is just repetitive and boring busywork.

  6. Hi Rachel,
    Thank you so much for communicating; I know it takes time and effort on your part and you seem to be the only board member running point on this.
    In terms of my comment, can you tell me why the board and the district don’t advocate for more funding. I do not see why there is not more of an active campaign to get more funding in the schools as there is clearly need and there would be so many ways to increase funding in our rich city and rich state. SFUSD has so many immediate needs from smaller class sizes, to increasing teacher pay, to creating SFUSD employee housing, to fixing old schools, to hiring more teachers and professionals. With the booming economy and low interest rates, it seems that there should be a way to get funding levels that really meet the needs of our students and our economy. The funding for the public sphere is so out of alignment with the money in the private sphere. I am just confused; why is there not more strategic advocacy for more public education funding? If it does not happen during this sizable economic boom, when would it happen?

  7. +1 for Matt Brauer for BOE in 2016.

    The funding issue is critical. I often see proposals for alternatives that seem wonderful, yet each one would require more money that we don’t have. Our budget is not unlimited, and our hard-working school board spends countless hours making tough decisions with funding as an input, not as a variable they can modify. Rest assured that they would all welcome more dollars to serve more students and support more teachers and paras more effectively.

    With that in mind, the key pressure point on overall funding would be advocating to our elected officials in Sacramento: incumbent Phil Ting, newly elected David Chiu and the next state Senator who will replace Mark Leno. From my understanding, we whiffed on a golden opportunity last year to pass limited Prop 13 reform as applied to a well-documented commercial property loophole. If we’re serious about more funding, then we need to make sure that the representatives we pay in Sacramento (with a good chunk of our income) don’t swing and miss again.

    All parents of public school kids need to get involved at every level — state, local and federal — if we’re serious about durable changes in funding our California public schools. We have to make school funding the #1 issue for every state official who wants to be voted in and paid by us in the next three years, because now is a better time than later.

  8. I want to respond to some of the comments and also make sure people saw Jill Tucker’s article in today’s Chronicle:

    @evacr – it’s a bit of a leap to think that kids in elementary school now are going to be bored in middle school math. Part of what we heard tonight at the Curriculum Committee is that we are in an “implementation phase” that may or may not be going so well. Definitely we are hearing that some kids are bored in middle school math as newly-constructed; whether that can be fixed or not, and how, is an open question as far as the Board is concerned. District staff is strongly saying “we can do this and it will be better for all kids in the long run”; parents are saying “we don’t believe you.”

    @alimcollins as always I appreciate your perspective as a parent and an educator. I do think, as I’ve said for the six years i’ve been on this board, that we have to get a lot better at communicating with parents and making sure people feel heard. I do what I can through the blog, but I can only do so much.

    @michelle though I’m sorry to hear your child is bored in math, you’re experiencing the “old” math and not the “new” math. Is the “new’ math as boring to advanced students as the “old” math? Parents of high achieving students we heard from tonight said yes; district staff that testified tonight (shoutout to the Math department at Mission HS, which has got the religion and is very fired up about the new math teaching methods and sequence) that students’ math experiences should improve and be more challenging.

    @Middle School Mom I think that is the crux of the question Matt is posing in his post. In theory, this is a better way to teach math. In practice, are we able to make the investments in both smaller class sizes and teacher training to get the benefits? Even the Mission HS team testified tonight that more professional development and smaller class sizes would yield better results. I acknowledge it is an open question whether we can invest enough in each of these things to see the benefits described in the Burris study.

    @KH more investment in schools overall would of course yield better results. Our SIG results are a great example of that.

  9. Thank you, Matt Brauner for your thoughtful and heartfelt post on this issue. When I read posts such as yours, the only thing I can think about is the fact that SFUSD could provide real differentiation if it was a fully funded public institution. If SFUSD had realistic funding, SFUSD could hire more teachers to reduce class sizes. Thirty-seven children in one math class is not a quality education nor a realistic proposition for differentiated learning.
    Prior to Prop, 13 and the Bush-Cheney tax code, California was the crown jewel of the public education system. Public schools had PE teachers, nurses, art teachers, librarians and more. The UC System was considered on par with Ivy Leagues yet working class and middle class families could afford to send their children there without going into debt. We need to find a way to generously fund our public schools.
    We live in an enormously wealthy city and state, yet, we fund our public school students on a level that is close to Mississippi. Since the 1980s, the wealth gap has widen while, simultaneously, the funding for public institutions has decreased. SFUSD is left with a mission to educate the most disadvantaged students with a budget that is 1/3 of what a private school receives in tuition (SFUSD gets around $9000 per student while private schools receive around $27,000 per student).
    It’s time for parents, the school board, and the district to become advocates for public school funding starting with the math curriculum. In San Francisco, the poster child of technology and science, we need to offer high quality, competitive math and science curriculum in our public schools.
    We should be asking wealthy individuals to create a public endowment for Californian schools. We should be asking the 20 billionaires in San Francisco to create an endowment similar to the endowments of private schools to fund current and future needs. Apple and FaceBook just had record profits – 18 billion for Apple in one quarter alone – we should be using this economic boom period to refinance and recharge our public sphere.
    Public school parents have taken on a tremendous task in terms of raising money for art teachers, PE teachers, literacy coaches, art supplies, etc. They also are asked to advocate for their children and to advocate for the basic tenants of a competitive, quality education. All this takes time and money away from middle class and working class families. It’s great for community building, but it should not be necessary for parents. It’s time that part of burden of educating the next be shared by those who have profited the most from the United States wealth of public assets and infrastructure. Generations of people, from the end of WWII to the 1990s, were educated through the common conceit that it was in everyone’s best interest that children receive quality public school education which enabled them to be productive and responsible citizen. Businesses benefited from an educated workforce and stable society. Individuals benefited from social mobility and autonomy within the workforce.
    Fight for math and also fight for more funding.

  10. Middle School Mom

    My child is a 7th grade student in a class of 37. This was the first year for common core math at our school. The curriculum so far this year is nothing like the former 7th grade math and has been a rehash of 5th and 6th grade topics. I see no evidence of differentiation. We are very concerned about next year and the lack of a clear path to any advanced math in high school. Please seriously consider the chasm between what is theoretically possible in a well funded school with tiny classes, aides, computers, and a very experienced teacher, and what is going to happen in a class of 37+ with a single teacher and no other district support. Until there is proper (or even plausible) support for real differentiation in math, there should be an option for all students to be in an appropriately paced class.

  11. Pingback: Algebra Tracking or Not... Communication and Accountability Could Use Some ImprovementSF Public School Mom

  12. My impression since “NCLB” has been that school districts are most incentivized to address the needs of students who are *just below* proficient — you get the “most bang for your buck” by getting this kids to be “proficient,” vs. no recognition whatsoever for challenging “advanced” or “high performing” students.

    SFUSD has been increasingly neglecting “GATE” identified kids. First, middle schools started dropping their honors courses. Then, 7th grade Algebra/8th grade geometry was discarded (because UC schools weren’t accepting middle school geometry as meeting a math requirement). Now, 8th grade algebra is at risk. I believe Lowell has gotten permission to let kids take a placement exam to “place out of” 9th grade algebra, but it is not clear whether public middle schools will continue to offer 8th grade algebra.

    Since 5th grade I’ve been told over and over “not to worry” since my daughter will be “well prepared” for the next grade. Terrific. But she has taken Pre-Algebra in 7th grade, Algebra in 8th grade (and the 7th and 8th grade math textbooks are about 80% the same) and was bored out of her mind during 8th grade. Fortunately she’s able to take Geometry this year (and some more “advanced” members of her cohort are in Algebra II this year). With common core, what on earth will students be learning in 7th and 8th grade?

    I’m all for reducing the achievement gap, but not by giving my student less interesting material to learn while other students “catch up.”

  13. Thank you for this post. It brings up a lot of the issues I think we SHOULD be talking about in our district: 1) How can the district improve its communication with families about district decisions? We can’t support implementation of new systems if we don’t understand them. 2) Also, what happens when parents and students aren’t satisfied with implementation of new systems? I’m perfectly happy with the differentiation going on in my girls classroom. My teacher is great. Apparently this is not happening in all classrooms. What happens when differentiation is not working?

    Aside from complaining to the teacher and principal, there is no clear system for addressing problems in our schools. I have had similar issues in dealing with inadequate instruction in my one of my daughter’s art and music classes provided by VAPA. I am working WITH the principal, and yet it feels my concerns are often not addressed. And I KNOW the system. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is for non-educator families to navigate our system. We could go a long way to improving “customer service” throughout our system.

    I believe a lot of the impetus for this algebra discussion is due to the fact that the district is not doing as well as it could to work with parents as problems arise. For example, currently we don’t have a very clear system for capturing parent feedback (both positive and negative). There is also no clear way to view parent complaints in a collective way. If only one parent complains about something, it’s an individual problem which may or may not get addressed. But if lots and lots of parents are complaining about a similar problem, then it’s and indicator of a systems issue that needs to be addressed.

  14. Wow.

    Matt’s done a good job of articulating my fears around (particularly) middle school math AND the lack of resources for GATE kids in the system.

    I care intensely about the achievement gap but I also have an 8 year old daughter who is a ferocious learner and is loving math. I have deep misgivings about whether she’ll be bored and underserved as we head to middle and high school. I believe in public schools, but I’m obliged to; we could only afford to send our children to private school by gutting any kind of funding for their post-secondary education.

    I don’t want to be apocalyptic, but is the district really going to refuse challenge kids who excel at academics? Is there anywhere the district more clearly states their plans around this?

  15. Annette Hurst

    Great post. Matt, there are other places where Burris has written and described the class size as fewer than 20. Here is a link describing only 15 students per classroom:

  16. Marivi Lerdo de Tejada

    Can we get Matt Brauer to run for the Board of Ed?

    Sent from my iPhone