Math coach stresses importance of Common Core Standards

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

At a special parent-teacher conference at Marlinton Middle School Thursday, math coach Johanna Burt-Kinderman led a discussion on the Common Core [Next Generation] Standards for math.

Burt-Kinderman began the discussion by explaining how the United States as a whole is behind other countries with regard to math scores and mastery in middle and high school students.

“The counties that are leading us have about forty percent of eighth graders operating at an advanced level,” Burt-Kinderman said. “In this country, we have seven percent. Those are 2011 stats. Those are the last ones put out and analyzed. That’s really disturbing. On that same test, the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] test, West Virginia high school seniors were dead last. Of that seven percent advanced proficiency in the country – of the fifty states – West Virginia was dead last.”

Because students were testing so low, governors from across the country joined with experts in education and industry to create better standards for schools to follow. Unlike many curriculum, the standards are a guideline for teachers to use. There is not a certain textbook to use. Instead, the teachers adapt what they have to fit the standards.

“There’s no such thing as a Common Core material,” Burt-Kinderman said. “The Common Core really just is the ideas and the fluencies that your kids are supposed to learn. They don’t tell you the way to do problems. They’re definitely not requiring unnecessary steps.

“They’re just a set that says when you learn to do what with fractions,” she continued. “When do you learn to graph lines. They don’t say anything more than that. In middle school in particular, they’re way deeper focused on many fewer standards and they require that students be able to know why. That’s pretty darn different than where we were before. It’s not different than where Massachusetts – who is usually first in our country – was. It’s not different than Singapore, than Finland.”

The biggest difference between the old way and the new way is, instead of just asking the students to find the correct answer, they are asked to explain why that answer is right and how they came to that answer.

“We are talking about why – knowing why it works particularly in elementary and middle school,” Burt-Kinderman said. “They’re equally focused on concept, the idea, the skill and the application. They are benchmarked internationally, so they are comparative to a lot of other countries. They were built on comparisons and there’s cross-references you can do between that language and between what other countries are doing.”

The implementation of the standards also changes the way the classroom operates. Instead of a teacher-led lecture or silently doing math problems, students are divided into groups and asked to collaborate on finding the correct answers to problems.

“We still do have direct instruction where the teacher is in front of the class, which is not all period-long anymore,” Burt-Kinderman said. “That ball is getting tossed in different ways. There’s more talking, more writing, more student development of ‘how do I think I should problem solve this.’ There’s a lot more focus on why.”

In 2012, the West Virginia Department of Education stated that Common Core [Next Generation] Standards must be taught in all schools by 2015. To get a jump start on the implementation, Pocahontas County Schools began a roll out of the standards in 2012.

Burt-Kinderman was hired to assist math teachers with the roll out and to troubleshoot any issues. Although the roll out has caused some problems, Burt-Kinderman said it was a better way to prepare the students than to switch over, all at once, in 2015.

“We started a couple years ago and we’re dealing with those gaps and disfluencies,” Burt-Kinderman said. “There are some gaps and we’re dealing with them as they come. Our high school sequence is not what it needs to be. I hope it will be in two years, but two years ago we were coming to high school having to teach some Common Core middle school material in high school.”

The math departments at MMS, Green Bank Middle School and Pocahontas County High School are working on different ways to fill the gaps and make the transition easier for students. They are having after-school programs that are math specific and doing study groups for students with specific issues.

“Here at Marlinton Middle, there’s a time at the end of the day and we are grouping kids by what their sub-skill deficiencies are and trying to start to address the real specifics of where kids are struggling,” Burt-Kinderman said. “The high school is working with breakfast groups because they have breakfast after first block and they’re finding a lot of success having days that are devoted to certain sub-skill things in certain teachers’ classrooms.”

The efforts of the math departments have come to fruition and students are showing improvement in test scores. The current ninth grade has been using the standards for three years now and their scores have improved exponentially.

“In 2011-2012, the ninth graders were at forty-one percent at or above mastery – about fiftieth in the state,” Burt-Kinderman said. “We’ve hovered there, between fiftieth and fortieth for the last seven years. In 2013-2014, our ninth graders were at fifty-seven percent at or above mastery – fourteenth in the state and seventh in the state for Single A schools. Far and away above some people that have comparable poverty levels to us. We’re incredibly proud of these accomplishments.”

The standards or lessons used in top countries, including Finland, Singapore and Japan, were originally developed in the United States in the 1990s. U.S. schools tried and failed to implement the standards then.

“Some of the countries that have really high markers started following the recommendations of our National Teachers of Mathematics,” Burt-Kinderman said. “We have a really robust math-ed community in the United States and the principles and standards for school mathematics came out in the early 90s. The NTM organization recommended we should teach math with meaning.

“We failed some kids,” she continued, “so the United States decided ‘we’re not going to do that.’  So these other countries have been using the research that came from the United States at least since the early 90s and that is one major difference. I can’t answer for every country, but certainly Finland, Singapore and some countries in Asia are drawing from research that actually came from here.”

Burt-Kinderman opened the discussion to parents who shared their concerns about their children’s grades dropping due to the change. She explained that it was still a work in progress and welcomed parents to keep her up-to-date on where the students are struggling.

The consensus of the group is that the math classes are moving too fast and the students are not retaining what they are learning.

“If we’re going too fast, if we’re pushing them too hard, and we need to dial that back a little bit and we need to build in more sub-skills, we need to hear more of that from you,” Burt-Kinderman said. “But, if we left your children to not be going this Next Generation/ Common Core route, your children would be taking these tests this spring and they would be entering high school far less prepared than they currently are right now.”

Burt-Kinderman shared her contact information and asked parents to keep the lines of dialogue open so that she is able to continue assisting teachers with the standards.

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