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Students teaching students in new world of Common Core math

Downey Unified uses fourth grade teacher Tanya Bishop's classroom to demonstrate best practices in the new Common Core learning standards.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Downey Unified uses fourth-grade math teacher Tanya Bishop's classroom to demonstrate best practices in the new Common Core learning standards.

This is another story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teaching standards are playing out in schools in Southern California.

Four years into teaching Common Core-based math in elementary schools, Downey Unified is betting that its collaborative approach will serve its students well as they join millions now taking new standardized tests measuring what they've learned.

Schools took different routes in rolling out the Common Core teaching standards, the new approach to learning that emphasizes such concepts as problem-solving and teamwork over methods like rote memorization. The goal for all is to better prepare students for college and careers in a competitive global marketplace.

Perhaps more than any other subject, math has undergone a major overhaul, and it's been confounding for many parents. When KPCC talked to a group of parents recently, they cited Common Core math as an especially anxiety-provoking subject and one that's being taught in a way radically different from what they themselves remember.

One thing is true as schools transition from older teaching methods: there are many ways to learn math under Common Core.

Downey's approach is drawing attention from neighboring districts. Students explain how they arrive at answers, help their classmates figure out problems, and engage in lively conversations with their teachers and each other.

How it works

At Downey's Old River Elementary School, fourth-grade teacher Tanya Bishop begins a math lesson for students as visitors, including teachers from nearby Cypress School District, walk in to observe.

The 30 kids sit on the rug in front of a dry erase board, and the lesson begins with a 15-minute talk, a review of numbers and their relationship. Then, Bishop takes her students through a “choral counting” of fractions.

“So, in a minute, I’m going to put a number up there and we’re going continue counting by that number," Bishop says. 

Starting with three-sixths then four-sixths, the kids count off until they reach six-sixths, a whole number. And when they get to the whole number, they shout: "Stop, stop!"

So here’s the first evidence of Common Core’s approach: the teacher is shifting the responsibility of learning and teaching onto the students.

Thad Domina, University of California-Irvine education researcher, has looked at Downey Unified’s Common Core teaching methods. 

“The debate is about whether we learn math conceptually first or procedurally first,” Domina said. He said the district is doing both at once: emphasizing concepts while ensuring students learn the steps, the procedure, to solve a math problem.

For example, students learn there are two sets of two units that together make up four units -- that's the concept. Learning to work out the problem 2x2 by multiplying 2 by 2 to get to four is a procedure. 

That Downey students are being taught both broad concepts and step-by-step procedures may be comforting to parents who wondered if the new Common Core math would leave their children unable to add up a list of integers.

Keeping students engaged

Back at Bishop's math class, the visiting teachers watch and get guidance on how students are kept engaged in the lesson.

“What you should be looking at [is] what’s the teacher’s role, what type of questions is the teacher asking, how are the kids interacting with the questions,” Downey Unified teacher specialist Melissa Canham told the group. 

Bishop turns up the engagement a couple of notches and instructs the students to talk to the classmate next to them. They discuss whether six-sixths is in fact a whole number or whether they should continue counting. In the noisy conversation that ensures, kids can be heard asking questions, listening and responding.

Now it’s time for the word problem: how many sticks of clay will 14 kids need for an art project that requires three fourths of a stick of clay for each student? Back at their desks, the students come up with their own equations.

Bishop said any equation, even if it’s wrong, is a start and a way for students to engage with the math problem. The visitors observe there are no kids staring at the wall during the lesson and the process that follows will take care of correcting any equation that's wrong.

“So we’re going to listen to Karen, and then Terry is going to come up and share,” Bishop tells her students. “And again, guys, this is Karen talking to you, explaining to you. So our ears are listening to Karen.” 

What happens next is a structured back-and-forth between the students, with Bishop serving as a kind of moderator.

Karen explains how she solved the problem. Then students talk about it with their partners and correct each other when needed. The answer, nearly an after-thought, comes about 30 minutes later. But the work isn’t over. The students, with an initial round of moans, review how another student has solved the problem.

New replaces the old

School district officials said it’s taken a lot of teacher training and sharing of best practices to move away from the old way of teaching.

“Oh, in the old days, everybody would have been sitting in rows, facing to the front, teachers in the front. ‘This is how I do it, now you do it. Do it a couple of times. Now do it 20 more times for homework,'” said Martinez, the district teaching specialist.

Domina said the newer, more effective teaching approaches emphasize the exchange between teacher and student. But he adds teachers need to be well-grounded in Common Core.

“Teachers have to understand the standards. They can’t just open the textbook and teach them. They have to understand, too, and parents also have to learn — and that’s scary, often,” he said.

Evidence of whether Downey Unified’s methods, or those of other California school districts, are helping students learn better won’t come for at least another year.

It will take at least that long before the scores on the ongoing Common Core standardized tests are deemed official and can be used to compare progress, both for individual students and their schools.