Curriculum changes bring new challenges
BY LOUISE R. SHAW
Clipper Staff Writer
FARMINGTON — For some, math has always been a difficult subject.
This year, students and parents are seeing a new kind of difficult, as the implementation of the new Utah Core Standards continues in more Davis School District schools.
Junior highs instituted the new teaching methods this year and the curriculum changes will move to high schools next year beginning with sophomores, then including juniors and seniors in the next two years.
At the elementary level, sixth graders switched to the math core last year and first-through-fifth graders made the change this year.
And it’s a big change.
“We used to teach students a skill, give them the example and they had to repeat the example with new numbers in kind of a memorization process,” said Chadley Anderson, junior high math curriculum superivisor.
“When they got it we gave them a real-life problem and let them solve it,” she said.
With the new curriculum, said Anderson, “we’ve turned that upside down.
“They’re still learning the skills, but from a real life situation instead of from a memorization standpoint,” said Anderson. “There is group- and whole-class discussion and the teacher then guides them into what the skill is that they want to specifically learn.”
Students can “self-select” whether to take math or honors math.
Another change resulting from the new program is that instead of taking an algebra or a geometry class, all subjects are integrated in all classes all years.
“Students are getting more in the same amount of time,” said Anderson. “They’ve revamped the concepts so they spiral together more than they used to.”
Davis School District isn’t the only district implementing the new curriculum.
All across Utah, districts are dealing with similar change after the state elected to participate in the core standards. To date, 45 other states have signed on as well.
The new curriculum was designed to prepare students for college and careers, said Anderson.
“They actually went to work places and colleges and said, ‘What do students need to know to be ready for your level?’” she said. “They worked backward to decide what needed to be taught each year and how to spiral it to get to those levels by the time they are college and career ready.”
Math teachers at the junior high level had four intensive training days during the summer and several more during the school year to prepare them for the new methods.
The Utah Legislature allowed districts to cut two instructional days from the school calendar this year so teachers could have more training in the math core.
“Teachers are excellent at doing the direct instruction,” said Anderson. “We’ve been trying to help them learn how to ask the questions that help deep thinking.”
Teachers also have to learn to help without over-helping or under-helping, she said, and when to stop a class that’s in “deep frustration.”
“It’s a whole new world,” said Lisa Neubert, a math teacher at Centennial Junior High in Kaysville. “I love the concept of the Common Core. I think it’s fabulous. It’s a situation where students within a guided classroom setting actually figure out mathematical concepts, theorems and formulas with guided help from me.”
As a result, they understand the concepts better and remember them longer because they have ownership of the concepts, she said.
Neubert admits that there have been challenges. Correcting assignments is a lot harder now that it’s not just looking at numbers, and figuring out how best to help the students maneuver to the right concepts can be challenging.
“It has been a learning year and I think that’s where the parents are getting frustrated, because we’re still figuring out what works and what doesn’t and we’re going to make some mistakes,” she said.
Parents for the most part are very supportive, she said, but a few of them have said, “Where is the textbook? I can’t even help my child.”
The books selected by Davis School District for use in the new math program are workbooks rather than textbooks. Students are issued their own books, and new ones are printed each year with the latest updates.
Those who are studying at home can access online resources.
“Parents can go online and if they have questions on the concepts, there are videos targeted to that specific problem,” said Anderson. “They’re getting more and more resources online all the time and we’ve got our own we’ve been creating and using in Utah.”
Carol Guthrie has elementary and junior high-aged children.
“I’m very concerned about how this will impact the children’s learning,” she said. “Some of the questions were a bit difficult even for me to understand what was wanted and I have talked to other parents in the district that also have had children that used to do well in math and now are a little bit confused.”
She found it telling when she heard that the district is offering classes this summer to help children understand what they’ve been learning in math this year.
Michael Berry was involved in some of the committees that helped adopt the new standards.
A math teacher, also at Centennial Junior High, he is especially supportive of the “mixing pot” of concepts that blend geometry and algebra at all ages.
In one example he gave, students are asked to plan an animal-sitting business over the summer. They need to determine how many dogs and cats they should take care of to make the most money.
The project includes writing equations and making graphs.
“We’re trying to get them to ask the ‘why’ questions more, to internalize it better than they have in the past,” said Berry. “The kids are producing their own textbook basically.”
Anderson concurred: “It will enable the children to see the application, that algebra is related to geometry. It is not a separate thing. They work together and one often explains the other. When taught independently, the kids don’t see how they are tied together.”
Berry has seen some kids who have been successful in prior years struggle this year, “because they may be very procedural but not as analytical in their thinking,” he said. “Some of the other students are analytical but didn’t want to do the problem because they didn’t see the purpose. Now they see the purpose. Overall, students are struggling because the bar has been raised.”
Testing is a concern, and Logan Toone, director of assessment for the district, told the school board there may be an “implementation dip” in state standards tests this year, until the state drafts tests based on the new curriculum, most likely by next year.
“They’re just learning in a different order than they were before,” said Anderson.
“Students are very adaptable,” she said. “It’s not that we expect them to figure it out on their own, but we want them to do some exploring and some thinking. That’s when we get higher-level thinking skills.”