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Math teaching plan will not shed tiers

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.”

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  • CMcQuilken

    This new “Common Core” curriculum, is this good or bad for Ridgefield?

    I’ve heard the pitch at a number of meetings. I’m still open minded but here is one example concern I have. Under our current math program, the student needs to solve a math problem and come up with an answer, then circle it on the page. Been this way for 100 years.

    But under Common Core, the student would be asked to describe the answer using words.

    Here’s an example problem that was shown at the meetings:

    ********************
    Three swimmers compete in a race.

    Swimmer A, 21.15 seconds
    Swimmer B, 22.53 seconds
    Swimmer C, 21.23 seconds

    If you rounded their times to the nearest 10th of a second, who won the race?
    ********************

    With the current math program, the student circles A and C on the answer page. (They tied.)

    Under the new Common Core, the student is asked to describe the process of deciding who won.

    “If you round the swimmers’ times, Swimmer A’s time will round up to 21.2. Swimmer C’s time will round down to 21.2. So in the end, they will tie for first place.”

    The idea is to not just get the answer, but show you understand the process of getting the answer.

    Sounds good, but that’s a lot of writing. And the tests will be administered on computers only. i think this means it really is only testing the student’s ability to type. How long will it take a typical 5th grader to type the wordy response above? I’d say 5 minutes. That’s 5 seconds to solve the math problem and 5 minutes to type in the response. As a result, I think the students will not be answering a lot of math problems, instead the students will be doing a lot of typing. The students who type faster will answer more problems and will score higher on the math test. I see it as a typing test, and not really a math test.

    There are other examples like this where I feel we get away from the age-old idea of learning basic math skills and instead we get into not-immediately-relevant issues, like typing.

    I’m curious what others think. I really am open minded, but I just don’t clearly see the benefit yet of “Common Core”.

  • Nicole

    VP (and maybe the other elementary schools) have just introduced a computer typing program to prepare students to take the computer assessment.

  • CMcQuilken

    Hi Nicole, at an informational meeting the other day, I asked the district administrators if there are plans to teach typing. We were told typing would be taught only to the 1st and 2nd graders – who will take the new common core tests in a few years. But the higher grades, meaning 3rd, 4th and 5th, would not be receiving any typing instruction.

    Maybe the PTAs could work with the administration and arranging to have typing as an after school enrichment class?

  • Nicole

    Although only the first and second graders are receiving typing instruction with the program at school, students in any grade can login and use the program at home.

  • CMcQuilken

    Do you think that will work, having students study typing on their own at home? I don’t. I’m a big fan of teachers and the magic they bring to the classroom, cajoling kids to learn. I think they need to be part of the process. I wish there was a way to have the schools reconsider. If we really want to be successful on these new tests, I think the schools should teach typing to the students. Even aside from the common core tests, it would be a great life skill for these kids to learn in the classroom.

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