The solutions are changing in San Francisco's math classes

By: Amy Crawford | 09/25/11 10:54 PM
Layered approach: The Common Core approach to math instruction takes into account how well students reason, not merely whether they got the correct answer. (AP file photo)
The traditional math class may soon become obsolete as San Francisco school officials roll out a curriculum based on new national standards over the next few years.
“You’ll see a lot less teacher in the front, kids in rows struggling to write down examples,” said Kristen Hernandez, math coordinator for San Francisco Unified School District campuses in the Mission district. “It’s getting away from, ‘There’s one way to do it.’”

This month, the school district announced it had received a $3 million grant from the San Francisco-based S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation to help revamp its curriculum to match the math portion of Common Core, a set of national math and English standards California adopted in 2010.

“Standards are a tool that helps organize teaching and learning,” said Associate Superintendent Dee Dee Desmond. “We’re really excited about the Common Core; it’s sort of like a new and improved set of tools.”

Under the new math standards, Desmond said, students will be more likely to work on projects and in groups. Though the skills they learn, such as arithmetic, fractions and algebra, will mostly be the same, teachers will look at how well students reason rather than simply whether or not they get the right answers.
“Is this the only way you could get this answer? Why?” said Hernandez, explaining how teachers might approach a lesson.

Hernandez and Desmond said teachers are already beginning to use the Common Core approach in both math and English. The SFUSD recently bought new math textbooks, but it is three years overdue to buy new English books because of a budget shortfall. The state requires schools to finish the transition to a new curriculum by the 2014-15 school year.

Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., have adopted Common Core, yet few school districts are using it.

According to a report published this month by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, only two-thirds of school districts nationwide have a plan to put the standards into practice. Most said a lack of funding is holding up progress.

States also have yet to come up with standardized tests consistent with Common Core. In math, Desmond said, the tests would have to let students show their work, which would be more difficult to grade than the current computerized multiple-choice tests.

A new approach

A sampling of the skills Common Core expects students to learn:

- Kindergarten: Solve addition and subtraction word problems, and add and subtract within 10, e.g., by using objects or drawings to represent the problem.

- Grade 3: Represent a fraction 1/b on a number line diagram by defining the interval from 0 to 1 as the whole and partitioning it into b equal parts.

- Grade 5: Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies … relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.

- High school: Evaluate and compare strategies on the basis of expected values. For example, compare a high-deductible versus a low-deductible automobile insurance policy using various, but reasonable, chances of having a minor or a major accident.

Source: Common Core State Standards Initiative