School administrators said recently they’ll scale back some ambitious changes planned for teaching math in Ridgefield, and the district is launching a public relations effort to ease parents’ concerns about the plans.
“There’s a level of readiness for the community… and the community needs more information really about what Common Core means,” Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Beck said, referring to the new Common Core State Standards.
The new course sequence, proposed Feb. 11, would phase in national standards that the state adopted in 2010. The plan included shifting the “identification year” from fifth to sixth grade, meaning incoming middle schoolers wouldn’t be split up by ability.
That shift to push back the tier system in sixth grade, and to move from three to two tiers in later years, troubled a number of parents as well as school board members.
Skeptics worried that adding “differentiation,” or addressing students’ varying abilities within the same setting, would be too much of a shift for teachers who are also teaching in a dramatically different way.
In an update to the board last week, Ms. Beck said the plan announced earlier in the month would be implemented more slowly and a transition plan was still being developed.
“Everyone will get the Common Core units, but for those advanced learners there will be standardized extension units,” Ms. Beck said. “For others there will be pre-teaching of foundational skills,” she added later.
Ms. Beck said the content will still change as previously outlined.
Unlike the current “spiraling” curriculum, that introduces and re-visits many topics over the years, the new Common Core standards aim for mastery before moving on — going into greater depth with concepts.
Math educators are enthusiastic about the changes, but board members were hesitant, and so were parents.
Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Beck said a lot of the anxiety comes from how different the new program is. It rearranges the order in which content and concepts are taught and sets some lofty goals of exposing all students to linear algebra in middle school and pre-calculus in high school.
Ms. Beck warns that the traditional vocabulary of math, which reflects isolated concepts, doesn’t apply to Common Core, so describing it is difficult.
“There’s no translation; that’s been the hard part. This is like a foreign language for parents that were taught in a very different way and in a very different context,” Ms. Beck said.
There are five core concepts that the curriculum is built around: Algebra, geometry, number and quantity, functions, statistics, and probability.
“Another modeling. Modeling of numbers exists across all standards,” Ms. Beck said. “These are the concepts that these courses are built around.”
Under the current system there are three levels of math courses. Ms. Beck, careful about the perception of the program, said she didn’t like the term “tracks.”
She said people tend to think that “‘track,’ and rightfully so, means once you’re on it, you never get off.”
School board members raised concern about students’ ability to change from one level to another.
Ms. Beck and the math teachers who originally presented the plan said there is potentially more room, not less, for students who excel at a later age to move to a more advanced level.
The district has launched a public relations campaign to help better educate parents about the new system — meeting with PTAs and parents and sending out material to parents with links to online resources about Common Core.
Ms. Beck said the changes are not simply to acquiesce to parent complaints. She wants the community to understand and be comfortable with what the district is doing.
“This is not a response to complaints, [but] we cannot be dismissive,” she said. “This is a huge transformational change in the world of education. This can’t be something where we just shut the door and say, ‘You’ve got to trust us on this.’ We must work together as a community to create understanding and better prepare families for the necessary shifts in practice.”
Board of Education member Irene Burgess was among those leery of some of the changes. She’s glad the transition is being slowed.
“I think they need to do the PD and learn the new coursework first,” Ms Burgess said, referring professional development that would train teachers in differentiation. “Then we can go back and revisit how we should” separate students.
It hasn’t been long since the school board changed its math curriculum. In fact, in 2007, the district changed its K-5 approach, spurred by test scores that were significantly lower than peer towns.
At the time the district spent $113,000 on books at the elementary grades, and the new budget proposal includes for $135,000 for books that will replace those in third, fourth and fifth grade.
Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark asked at a meeting on the school budget why the new math program was coming so close on the heels of the previous math initiative.
“We just paid for a new math program,” she said.
Superintendent Deborah Low said the new program was needed because to bring in the district into line with the Common Core standards adopted by the state, as well as other states around the country. The previous initiative had been based on a “spiral” concept. The new standards take a different approach that educators now think is more effective: “Teach few topics, taught to mastery, in greater depth.”
Ms. Low said the district was changing because that’s the direction chosen by the state and its testing program. Also, since so many states have been moving to the Common Core and it’s approach, the company that produced the math program the schools had been using is no longer producing support materials for it.
“It’s very different,” she said. “We were comfortable with the spiral. Our math scores were going up. Now, it’s all changed.”