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With Common Core, Fewer Topics but Covered More Rigorously

September 7, 2013

I read this interesting article in the New York Times by KENNETH CHANG, Published: September 2, 2013

With Common Core, Fewer Topics but Covered More Rigorously

If the new mathematics standards adopted by New York and 44 other states work as intended, then children, especially in the lower elementary grades, will learn less math this year.

An eduction summit in Florida last week to discuss the new Common Core standards and other issues listed current strengths of the state’s K-12 system.

But by cutting back on a hodgepodge of topics and delving deeper into central concepts, the hope is that the children will understand it better.

So, for Mayra Baldi, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 169 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that will mean focusing on numbers. “You have to deepen their understanding,” she said. “You have to get them to think more.”

Under the previous New York math standards, kindergartners were expected to learn to orally count to 20 and write the numbers from 1 to 10. Under the new standards known as Common Core, they are to count 100, both by ones and by 10s, and to write all of the numbers to 20. To make time for the additional numbers, the new standards drop rudimentary introductions to concepts in algebra and statistics.

“Historically, in American education, we have done every concept in the world a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Kate Gerson, a senior research fellow at the Regents Research Fund, a privately financed group that advises the New York education department.

The earlier New York standards also called for mastery of math knowledge. But, Ms. Baldi said, “It wasn’t realistic. Now each grade has a focus.”

Brian Cohen, the coordinator for science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum for the Skaneateles Central School District near Syracuse said that to adults, it might not seem a big change to extend counting to 20, but the numbers 11 through 19 are the hardest numbers for a kindergartner to grasp.

“When you say the number 14, you hear the ‘four’ before the ‘teen,’ ” he said. “So when kindergartners try to read and write the number ‘14”, they end up writing a ‘4’ and then a ‘1’ — 41 instead of 14.”

Previously, kindergartners could fulfill the standard by memorizing a list of numbers. Now they are to not only say “fourteen,” but also to know it is written as “14” and understand that it represents a group of 14 objects.

Excised from kindergarten lesson plans, for example, are exercises to identify and create repeating patterns, which were meant as a rudimentary introduction to algebra concepts. “That was a big shift for kindergarten teachers, who used to spend a lot of time on patterns, and now we’re giving all of that time to numbers,” Mr. Cohen said.

Before Common Core, every state had its own version of math standards. Four years ago, governors and state-level officials began an effort to come up with a uniform set of knowledge that students across the country would master, from kindergarten through high school. The result was the Common Core: one set of standards covering reading and writing, the other mathematics.

The Obama administration did not play a direct role in writing Common Core, but it offered a financial carrot — states that adopted the new standards were more likely to receive a slice of billions of dollars in education grants. While states were quick to sign on, some have had second thoughts, either because of concerns about the expense of new textbooks and teaching materials needed, or seeing it as a federal takeover of local education decisions.

In addition, in New York, many parents expressed consternation in August when scores fell sharply on new, more challenging state tests that were based on the Common Core standards.

But New York officials have no doubts. They say the new standards are modeled on the teaching strategies of countries, especially in Asia, that perform better on international comparisons.

“Countries who outperform us are countries that do not cover every single concept that is on those tests,” Ms. Gerson said. “They cover focused concepts. They cover central concepts.”

Ms. Gerson said the Common Core is also intended to end the “math wars,” in which educators and parents battled over whether the emphasis should be on mastering basic math skills or conveying deeper concepts. With fewer topics to cover, “It is not an either/or situation anymore,” she said. “It’s a real return and attention to memorization and recall, drilling around math facts.”

But then students are supposed to be able to figure out how to use their math knowledge to solve problems that go beyond traditional word problems.

New York, like many other states, has been making a transition to the new standards. This fall will be the first school year they are fully put in place in New York.

Ms. Baldi, who taught second grade for the previous four years at P.S. 169 and will teach kindergarten this year, said she had changed how she taught math. In the past, she said she used to present a math topic first before giving exercises for her students to solve. Taking heed of the Common Core’s instruction that “mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution,” Ms. Baldi began to give a new problem “cold turkey,” without introduction or explanation, and let groups of students try to figure it out.

“I’m more of a facilitator, and I’m taking more of a step back,” she said.

Only after the students brainstormed their own solutions would she discuss the different ways of solving it. “I thought that they got a better understanding, because they got to tackle the problem on their own and got to hear from the other students,” she said.

The state has prepared teachers by holding workshops and posting a Web site of videos and documents describing the changing expectations.

In New York City, thousands of teachers, including Ms. Baldi, passed through the doors of Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan this summer for one-day workshops to learn about the new teaching materials that most elementary and middle schoolteachers in the city will be using this year.

“It was clear, and the program seemed very clear,” Ms. Baldi said.

The whole process could repeat in the coming years with the newly developed Next Generation Science Standards, which similarly attempt to lay out a coherent, challenging framework for what students need to learn in the 21st century.

A version of this article appears in print on September 3, 2013, on page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: Fewer Topics, Covered More Rigorously.

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