Transitioning and Teaching: Math and The Common Core State Standards

The meeting room was generic. The hotel could have been anywhere. I had to wonder how many people had cycled in and out of that room over the years, staring at PowerPoint slides that someone had thought would change the world. Thousands, probably.  I had certainly been one of those people—drinking bad coffee, sucking on hard candies, wondering when lunch was going to be served. Today, though, I was the presenter… and lunch had long since come and gone.

I looked out at the sea of faces in front of me. Eyes were shifting back and forth between me and the math problem on the screen. It was a sample test item prepared by one of the two consortia developing assessments for the Common Core State Standards, and as the eyes shifted back to me I could see alarm and confusion in them.

“The first part of the problem you can do through brute force, right?” I said. “Just basic computation. But then where are you? What do you do with this second part?”  I pointed to the bottom of the screen.

The second part of the problem asked students to decide whether or not the equation in the question could yield more than one correct answer. If students thought there might be a second answer, they could click on a button and be given a place to enter that answer. If they thought there was no second possible answer, they could click a different button and proceed to the next question. There were no clues for the student as to which button they should click. The choice was entirely theirs to make.

“See, they don’t just want you to solve the problem,” I said. “They’re trying to find ways to make you show that you understand it…how it works, what makes it tick, and what you can do with it.”

It’s always funny when I have to talk about math, because I was always bad at math. It was something I just accepted about myself, and no one ever challenged the idea—not teachers, not parents, and certainly not me. No one ever said, “We can’t allow you to be bad at math any more than we can allow you to be bad at reading.” And no one ever tried to figure out what, exactly, I was bad at.  I learned the procedures and formulas, I plugged in the numbers as best I could, and sometimes things worked. I never really understood why some questions came out right and some didn’t.  At some level I knew what to do, but at a deeper level I had no idea what I was doing.

When I look at the way the Common Core State Standards in math have been written and the “instructional shifts” that lie at the heart of the transition to these new standards, I feel as though they have been written with my old student self in mind. Someone out there wants children to understand math at a conceptual level and to be comfortable speaking it like a language. Someone out there wants children to be able to see patterns, draw conclusions, make generalizations, and transfer academic content knowledge out of the textbook and into the messy, unpredictable world around them.  Someone wants students to be able to lift the hood, peer down into the engine, and know what it is they’re looking at.

Of course, these aren’t new ideas. Lynn Erikson wrote about concept-based curriculum and instruction back in 2002. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote about teaching for understanding back in 2005. And they are far from alone. Many people have sat in hotel conference rooms, looking at PowerPoint slides and listening to presentations about these issues. We go to conferences, we read books, and we return to our classrooms, often finding it challenging just to teach the most basic skills to our students. There is so little time available. There are so many students to be served. There are so many different needs to be met.

The transition to the new standards is meant to be gradual and it has to be gradual, because changing a standard doesn’t automatically mean that someone can meet it.  A high jumper doesn’t become a better athlete just because the coach raises the bar. It’s fine to change our expectations, but we need to talk about what it takes to meet those expectations and then put a plan in place for getting there. What will the athlete need to do differently in order to jump higher? What will the coach need to do differently in order to train the athlete to do those things? How long will it take, under a reasonable training regimen, to get there?

And there’s another question the coach must ask when it feels as though an athlete can’t push through to the next level of performance: is it her or is it me? Is she truly performing at the outer limit of her capacity, or could she go further with the right kind of help? Am I the one who is limited? Could I be doing more? These are very uncomfortable questions to ask, but real change and growth are impossible without them.

If student performance is what we care about, we have to ask ourselves those questions. Wiggins and McTighe talked about backwards planning—starting with the goal in mind—when designing curriculum, but it’s clear we need to think about backwards planning when it comes to our pedagogy and instructional practice as well. A standards crosswalk can help us pinpoint gaps and challenges in what we have been teaching. But we also need a crosswalk focused on how we teach.  Given the new standards and the instructional shifts required to meet them, where are our current approaches sufficient? Where will they need to change? What help will we need to bridge the gaps we might be facing?

This is not something that can be mandated by administrators or purchased in pre-packaged sets. This is work that academic departments and professional learning communities need to undertake together, working in honest, authentic (and safe) dialogue.

We cannot ask our students to change, grow, and excel if we, as their coaches, are complacent about our own performance. This is the best modeling we can do for our students. We need to show them, in the way we live out our practice, that we can all do better, that we can all use some help, and that learning never ends.

Andrew Ordover manages the design and creation of all of Catapult Learning instructional programs. Andrew has worked in curriculum development at public and private schools in Atlanta, New York City, and the Slovak Republic. He has created print and online programs for K12 students and has developed live and online professional development workshops and courses for teachers. Most recently, he served as Director of Academic Quality at ASCD. Andrew has a BA in English from Emory University, an MFA in theatre from UCLA, andrecently completed work on his doctorate in education.

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