Apr 13 2014

OPINION: Common Core Math Proposal Presents Risks

Will Math Changes Reduce Student Options?

As many PCA readers know, the Piedmont Unified School District is developing its responses to California’s new “Common Core” standards for math.  These standards are intended to make math more “rigorous” and “real world” — which will require significant changes within individual courses, and may lead to restructuring of the overall K-12 progression of math classes.  After several listening sessions, the District staff recently shared its first partial draft of proposed changes.  Unfortunately, these could leave many students worse off than under existing sequences.

How Does Piedmont Math Work Now?

Students stay together for math in grades K through 5.  Individual teachers offer varying degrees of in-class “differentiation” to recognize different readiness and abilities, and there are some pull-outs for either enrichment or extra support.  Although the District has moved to increase uniformity, students’ experiences still vary depending on their teachers.

During grades 6-12, the approach changes, to create different multi-year “pathways:”

• Students who’ve done particularly well so far, and do well on a special test right after 5th grade start an “accelerated pathway,” taking 7th grade pre-algebra in 6th grade, with the option of staying on that pathway through  Calculus BC in 12th.  This year 36 6th graders (out of roughly 200) started this pathway.

• Other students take 6th and 7th grade math together.  Most take Algebra 1 in 8th grade and continue through Calculus AB.  Those who need more time and support can decelerate by taking Introduction to Algebra in 8th, Algebra 1 in 9th grade, and then can progress as far as Math Analysis.  This year’s 8th graders are split 85 in Algebra 1 and 75 in Intro.

Numbers vary year to year, but the percentages are roughly 35:45:20.  Students can move up to a faster pathway by taking summer school (or doubling up Geometry with Algebra 1 or 2), or down by delaying a course.

How Does Common Core Change Math Courses?

Common Core’s designers intend that no student should skip any course, since they’ve designed each course to have less review material and more new material than some of the present courses.  Instead, they suggest that students’ progress can be adjusted by “compressing” or “expanding” courses to vary the pace of instruction: compressing to provide 3 years’ worth of information in 2 years, or even 2 in 1; or expanding to stretch 1 year into 2, or 2 years into 3.  The designers leave states and schools to decide when and if to create these pace-based pathways.

What’s Being Proposed for Piedmont?

Piedmont staff have issued their first draft of a proposal to phase in changes to Piedmont’s math offerings, beginning with 6th grade changes during next school year (2014-15).  In this draft:

6th grade – all students would stay together (no acceleration/compression), with additional effort to offer in-class differentiation, enrichment and support

7th grade – higher-readiness students might start a compressed track (e.g., 7th, 8th, and Algebra 1 in 2 years), or compression might be delayed until high school while all students stay together

8th grade – higher-readiness students might or might not be on a compressed track; presently there’s no proposal to replace Intro to Algebra for students who need more time and support, so all students may stay together

High School – generalized commitment for faster track to reach Calculus BC, and to develop appropriate pathway for slower track.  No firm proposal, but latest example compresses 2:1 in 11th grade (Algebra 2 and Math Analysis) and/or in 12th grade (compress Calculus AB and BC into one year)

What’s Risky About This Proposal?

Although there’s no way to be certain how a new program will work until it’s implemented, the draft proposal has several risky features:

• None of us have found any national, statewide, or Piedmont data supporting the suggestion that deferring “pathways” helps math outcomes.  In contrast, we know that Piedmont’s accelerated pathway students have achieved very high results every year (grades, test scores, and some reporting by graduates about their college experiences), middle pathway students have done well, and students on the slower pathway have struggled to meet statewide standards.

• Every year without pathways is another year when students at all readiness levels share the same classroom – so teachers must not only revamp their courses to meet Common Core standards, but would have to differentiate their intsruction to meet the widest possible range of math readiness and learning styles.  And students would have to accommodate classmates with readiness levels very different from their own.  This isn’t impossible, but math differentiation in Piedmont’s existing courses is still problematic after years of efforts, and it’s likely to be harder rather than easier next year.

• Delayed compression means that less-ready students would not receive “expanded” courses until spending more years trying to keep up, and accelerated students would be taking 2-for-1 math in 11th grade, which is already the toughest year for most Piedmont students

Parents are working with the District and each other to reduce these risks by continuing to improve the staff proposal.  To learn more, you can visit the District’s Common Core webpage at http://www.piedmont.k12.ca.us/curriculum/common-core, or the latest version of a presentation used in public meetings, atwww.piedmont.k12.ca.us/communications/common-core-math-implementation-faq.    In addition, the Piedmont Advanced Learners Program Support group has also accumulated information, and is distributing on online petition (which attracted 130 e-signatures in its first 3 days) asking the District to reconsider its options – athttp://piedmontalps.org/math-petition.

Please take the time to learn more, offer your views through the online petition, or write the School Board or Assistant Superintendent Randy Booker.  As of this writing the Board has provided no guidance on this important issue, so your views can help the process.

Jon Elliott, Piedmont Resident

Editor’s Note:  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

One Response to “OPINION: Common Core Math Proposal Presents Risks”

  1. I am not close enough to the details of the current way Math is taught at Piedmont to provide constructive feedback on the “pathways”. My last involvement was a number of years ago spending time at the district office reviewing candidate math class books for the High School. In the mean time, I have suggested that the District and Parents take a good look at the Khan Academy, specially with regard to High School level math. I did prepare a presentation on the Kahn Academy for the District: you can find a copy at http://tinyurl.com/ogdfb9a. Refer also to a previous note posted on this web site (http://tinyurl.com/k4e24f7). Sincerely, Bernard Pech

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