February 28, 2014

Common Core… What?

Update: The SFUSD Math Department has unveiled a great new website that has lots of information and resources for families about the new math standards. They even have a blog! Click here to check it out and learn more. Or see below for more resources.

How are educators going to sell, let alone communicate, proposed improvements if parents don’t understand the basic premise of what we are talking about?In my experience with the previous California State Standards, most parents didn’t have a clue of what specific learning expectations students were working on grade to grade. What they did understand was that the California standards listed the primary content (what students should be able to know and do) at each grade level. Now that we are embarking on a new age of standards-based education, current polls show parents are even more in the dark. According to a survey released today by education reform advocacy group 50CAN, only 58% of Americans report they know what the Common Core Standards are. This is concerning, especially as it relates to math instruction. Not only are learning expectations in the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M) different from grade to grade, they are organized within an entirely different framework.

How are educators going to sell, let alone communicate, proposed improvements if parents don’t understand the basic premise of what we are talking about? We can’t just cut and paste a dated understanding of the old CA math standards to the new model set out in CCSS-M.

There has been a fundamental shift in how we will be teaching math in the years ahead. Case in point, we’re not teaching math content in silos anymore. Phil Daro, Bill McCallum, Jason Zimba, describe this key shift in their article, The Structure is the Standards

The pieces are designed to fit together, and the standards document fits them together, presenting a coherent whole where the connections within grades and the flows of ideas across grades are as visible as the story depicted on the urn…… Fragmenting the Standards into individual standards, or individual bits of standards, erases all these relationships and produces a sum of parts that is decidedly less than the whole.

In other words, you can’t cross-match the old standards with the new standards–it doesn’t work that way. We are talking about a major paradigm shift in how we think about and teach math to students. The new standards are built on the premise that knowledge of math concepts are built sequentially and in relation to one another. Students can’t learn Algebra if they don’t know how to multiply, for example. The best way for students to learn is to expose them to content and allow them to learn it deeply before moving on to new ideas. Once they have mastered it fully, you can build on that new knowledge to teach new related content and skills.

How does this play out in the real world? Let’s look at an example from my daughter’s third-grade classroom. In-line with CCSS in Mathematics, my girls are learning Geometry…

Not because they are child math prodigies capable of doing the type of advanced math I learned in high school!

They are learning geometric measurement as a mathematical construct in order to understand concepts of area, and then relate this understanding to multiplication and addition. This sounds really confusing (if you’re not a mathematician) but it gets easier to understand with an example:

Based on this standard, students might learn how to calculate the area of a rectangle or square using multiplication. If you look at learning of geometric measurement by domain (the CCSS defines a domain as a group of related standards), you will see that kindergartners learn to identify shapes and the basic attributes of objects (e.g. size shape, length, height). Each year students build skills in both measurement and geometry so that by the third grade they are able to use their newly learned multiplication skills to calculate the area of a square or rectangle.

So how are these new standards different from the old California standards?

The old CA Standards were made up of what some might call a laundry list of content and skills. Many educators felt they had to gloss over a wide range of material just to cover it. The old standards did not stress the relationship between learning various concepts within each grade level. Neither did they connect learning of concepts from year to year. For this reason, many criticized the CA standards because they felt students were forced to jump from topic to topic, never really gaining a deep conceptual understanding of how math works or how ideas related to one another. (Not that you want to, but if you want to, you can see both versions of the standards here.)

So, what does all this mean for our kids?

Well, if we are going to do any justice to the new CCSS, especially those for math, we are going to have to undertake a total overhaul in how we teach in our schools. This is currently underway, and I think it is a good thing. Nonetheless, it will require us educators (and I mean the BIG collective “us”, aka ALL educators nationally and at all levels) to do a lot more work in sharing relevant information with families about how the new standards are organized. I firmly believe that we need to do more of this at the district level, so that all of the work of explaining these changes won’t fall on teachers and administrators who are themselves trying to wrap their heads around instruction.

This is the first year that SFUSD is implementing the new standards in English. In talking with teachers at my daughters school, it is challenging work. Nonetheless, teachers have seemed ready and eager to take it on.

If we aren’t more proactive in anticipating questions, needs and misunderstandings, we could have some major confusion and even resistance when we actually go to implement the new math standards district wide next fall.Next fall the new math standards will be implemented district wide. I am excited about the changes that this will bring but am frankly a bit nervous about how it will play out in schools. As I mentioned, math instruction is organized in a very different way. Students will no longer take Algebra in 8th grade. Math concepts will be taught in different ways and will be introduced at different grade levels. In a previous post, I referenced a blog that Commissioner Rachel Norton posted recently about the new math course sequence. It is already evident from parent comments there, that there is a lot of confusion about these changes. If we aren’t more proactive in anticipating questions, needs and misunderstandings, we could have some major confusion and even resistance when we actually go to implement the new math standards district wide next fall.

Looking for family-friendly information on the new standards?

There are currently some great resources on the web that are geared for parents. They are a great place to start:

  • SFUSD Standards Webpage – This page on the SFUSD website provides families with information about how the District is implementing the CCSS. Go there to download specific resources in English, Spanish and Chinese.
  • SFUSD Mathematics Department Website – Go here to download resources and information in English, Spanish and Chinese related to CCSS for Math as well as documents explaining answers to your questions about changes to the Middle School and High School Math course sequence.
  • SFUSD Parent Guides on CCSS Shifts in Assessment – These handouts developed by SFUSD explain how shifts in standards will also lead to changes in student assessments. Click the links to see concrete steps you can take to help your child prepare for the shifts for ELA and Mathematics assessment. (To download these handouts in Chinese or Spanish, go to the SFUSD website and click the link to view the page in the correct language at the top right of the page.)
  • Parent Guides to Student Success – These 2 page handouts in multiple languages developed by the PTA show grade level expectations in English and math.
  • Video Explaining the Common Core – This video “A New Foundation for Student Success”, commissioned by the Hunt Institute and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), provides an introduction to the Common Core State Standards, including a brief history.

What questions do you have? If you are a parent and have a question about the new standards or how they will impact instruction, list them in the comments below.

I am not an expert on the standards. Nonetheless like many educators, am learning more as they are implemented in classrooms across the District. That said, I will do my best to answer your questions.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I have one question. Do your children have textbooks to bring home?

    • No. They bring them home at the end of the year (used or not) and they are usually workbooks… why?


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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.


Academics, math, sfusd


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