The District and Maryland have joined more than 40 states in embracing what's known as the "Common Core Standards." It's an effort to establish uniform expectations for what students should learn every year, from kindergarten through high school. D.C. Public Schools rolled out new reading standards last year. This year, students are learning how to do math differently.
The Common Core State Standards are an effort to get away from the often criticized "mile wide and inch deep" approach to teaching in the U.S. Under the old standards, D.C. public school teachers covered 45 topics. This year they have to cover 28. That brings the U.S. more in line with high-achieving countries such as Finland, Japan and Singapore.
Jerriel Hall teaches third grade at Leckie Elementary School in southwest D.C. He says third grade is a critical year, but in the past he had to race through challenging topics such as multiplication and division only to find his students didn't quite understand or remember what he taught. Now he says he has almost twice as much time to cover topics.
"We had six to eight weeks on fractions, it was beautiful," he says. "Last year, I had maybe three weeks." Hall says fractions are the building blocks of math. If students don't master concepts here, they will struggle later with algebra.
He does say teaching is far more challenging this year. "It's forcing me to think of strategies where they must reason. Getting them out of their seats, showing working in different ways, diagrams, number lines, using their arms. I have to explain not just the 'how' but the 'why.'"
Daniel Assael teaches seventh grade math at Deal Middle School in northwest D.C. He likes that students can no longer guess the answers to a math question. They really have to understand the concept to answer questions accurately. Like other math teachers, he's trying to change how students talk about math.
It's not just about 'did you get the right answer?' "Can they explain what they're talking about and why they're doing it, and come up with ideas of what they need and what they don't need." Having to think critically to figure out the answers can be challenging because it's so different from what students have had to do until now. The Common Core Standards are far more rigorous than DCPS's previous standards. Assael says his advanced students love the new material, but he worries about his struggling students.
Another teacher Amadour Jomuada teaches at Benjamin Banneker High School in northwest D.C. Jomuada says it's a challenging time for students and teachers, even at this high performing school, because students are still transitioning. But he likes that there is an emphasis now on real world applications. His students learn about proportions by figuring out the height of the different buildings in D.C. or volume by studying how the shape of different bottles affects how much water they hold.
Several math teachers in D.C. are concerned the Common Core Standards have been rolled out too fast, with little professional development to support these significant changes. They work longer hours scrambling to find lesson plans, wish there was far more professional development and worry these rigorous standards will mean a drop in test scores.
But more than anything, educators are hoping new Common Core Standards will help change the conversation around math, so it's no longer a subject everyone's afraid of.
"Unfortunately it has been something that's been accepted," says Jomuada. The thinking is, "Oh well, I wasn't good at math either when I grew up, so it's OK. You'll be good at other things." But Jomuada says that's not OK, because they say the skills needed to solve a math problem, and engage in critical thinking, creativity, precision, and persistence aren't just math skills. They are life skills.
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Photos: DCPS Common Core Standards
D.C. Public Schools teacher Jerriel Hall leads his third grade students through a Common Cores chant.