Monday, April 8, 2013

Do the Common Core authors really want Reform Math for "high needs" students?

It's increasingly clear that the Common Core is being interpreted, not just as further justification for Reform math and discovery learning, but also as a one-size-fits-all set of goals that rules out providing those who need it with below grade-level work.

We see both of these assumptions at work in an article in the past week's Education Week entitled
Teachers Break Down Math Standards for At-Risk Pupils [bold-face is mine throughout]:

Many accomplished teachers are enthusiastic about the common-core math standards' emphasis on mathematical reasoning and strategic expertise over rote computation, but some say the transition to the new framework poses daunting challenges for students who are already behind in the subject.
More than half the respondents in a recent survey of K-12 teachers who are registered users of said they feel unprepared to teach the common standards to high-needs students.
Here we should keep in mind that, since "social promotion" trumps academic preparedness, and since poor instruction is rampant, many of these "high needs" students aren't special needs students, but simply students who aren't academically ready for their current grade level.
Despite often lacking support and clear guidance, however, teachers aren't necessarily ready to throw in the towel. Some math educators are taking steps to refine their practices and adopt creative methods to help struggling students make the shift to the new instructional paradigm.
In other words, no one is telling teachers what to do when their students are too far behind the Common Core Standards for their assigned grade level to be able to reach these goals. And so teachers are figuring things out on their own. Are they providing these students with math at their actual grade levels? Or are they shoehorning them into the Common Core Complex?
One approach teachers commonly cite, for example, is to maintain the common core's emphasis on abstract reasoning and conceptual understanding while, at least at first, using word problems that require less-advanced math skills.
"It's OK if you need to start more basic," said Mr. Arcos, explaining that initially he used two-digit addition without regrouping his 5th graders, many of whom were at a 2nd or 3rd grade level in math.
The key is to "avoid focusing on the algorithm or any tricks," he said, so that the students have to work through the problems strategically. He noted that students at his school have daily problem-solving classes in this vein, as well as computation-skills practice two mornings a week.

Similarly, Todd Rackowitz, a math teacher at Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C., noted that, in integrating the common standards into an Algebra 1 course for students who are behind grade level, he "focuses on problems that don't involve complex computation at first." Even using basic math, students can begin to "make connections between the key elements of algebra, like slope and parallel lines and rate of change," he said.
So we have the usual dichotomies: algorithms = tricks = bad; "strategic" thinking = "making connections" = good. And the reduction of "key" algebraic concepts to concrete, arithmetic ones ("plug-and-chug" algebra). The idea here seems to be that what "high needs" students need isn't remediation, but Reform Math concentrate. Here's more:
"You have to help kids understand how to justify solutions, through discussion, interaction, and close guidance," said Mr. Arcos, adding that his school has adjusted scheduling to allow for more small-group and one-on-one instruction in math.
To build students' problem-solving and abstract–reasoning skills, he has also found it helpful to have students work out solutions and understanding through "group discussion and discovery." To spark engagement with problems, Justin Minkel, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher at Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., noted that he has his students "do a lot of writing in math." That practice, he said, helps students see the conceptual underpinnings of the problems they are working on and, with his assistance, see how words and phrases can relate to mathematical notations.

Yup, explaining answers, writing about math, and working in groups--it's all there. The only promising measure here is one-on-one instruction. But if it's not at the student's grade-readiness level, how far does it get him?
Mr. Minkel, whose school has a high percentage of low-income students, said he also makes an effort to give his students problems that have "practical applicability" to the real world. He noted that he has had success, for example, in having his students use what they were learning in math in an economics unit that involved determining the costs of materials for a building project against a budget.

Such activities can help students "make sense of problems"—the first of the common core's Standards for Mathematical Practice—and begin thinking about the ways math relates to their own lives, Mr. Minkel said.

Real-life applications, interdisciplinary projects--this is apparently what the Common Core authors want, especially when it comes to "high needs" students. Because if it isn't what they want, surely they'd have said so publicly--especially after high-profile articles like this one.
"It's harder to teach this way than just teaching algorithms and steps," said Mr. Minkel. "It forces you to go deeper... Sometimes, we realize that we don't understand things as well as we thought."
The only question is: when will you realize this?


Anonymous said...

The best feature of mainstreaming reform math is that the learning happens in a spiral. This means the students can work together while they're at different levels on the same spiral. The students are all together on the same inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder.

bky said...

An inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder -- that's a screw, right?

Barry Garelick said...

Yep, the usual dichotomies are there. The reform philosophy is to regard math as some sort of magical thinking process. It holds that “understanding” the problem and seeing the big picture is math, while the mechanics or problem solving are just a rote afterthought.

1crosbycat said...

Doesn't it seem like the reformers' "problem-solving and abstract–reasoning skills" is actually guessing and hoping things work out? Guessing is valued over knowing how to solve math problems by being taught how to solve math problems. I find it ironic that reformers want math to be all word problems all the time, yet in my experience the word problems were the biggest challenge to non-math people.

bky said...

Some of the reform math curricula have word problems that are not really word problems. I have seen Everyday Math up close and personal. It is very wordy, the kind of thing where reading comprehension is more important than math skills. It is full of what look like word problems except they are really long, wordy set-ups about three kids with complicated names and their lemonade stand, and lots of names and pointless facts. The work the student is finally asked to do is to make a table and then a graph. The Everyday Math algebra books try to de-emphasize the algebraic side of algebra as much as possible, and there are few if any problems that most people would recognize as "story problems" or "word problems". I call them "wordy problems".