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Major math changes loom for California students

Tiara Vandigriff raises her hand during an eighth-grade algebra class at San Francisco's Denman Middle School while Ann Lyon helps students. Under new standards, most eighth-graders will take a broader math class. Leah Millis/San Francisco Chronicle photo

Tiara Vandigriff raises her hand during an eighth-grade algebra class at San Francisco's Denman Middle School while Ann Lyon helps students. Under new standards, most eighth-graders will take a broader math class. Leah Millis/San Francisco Chronicle photo

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From page A1 | January 10, 2014 |

By Jill Tucker
Math is getting a major makeover.

By fall, traditional textbooks mostly will be tossed aside in California classrooms. What’s taught in each grade will get shuffled around and, often, merged. First-graders will get tiny tastes of algebra while learning to add, and middle school students will be exposed to statistics and geometry while still solving for X.

The changes are part of a national shift to Common Core standards, which identify the skills and topics to be taught at each grade level, with a focus on critical thinking and real-world applications rather than rote memorization.

So far, 45 states, including California, have agreed in the past few years to switch to the new standards, creating a more cohesive national public education system. The effort has been coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The new system, according to proponents, will offer a more logical progression of math concepts and include real-life reasons for learning, say, about exponents or linear equations, local and state education officials said.

To be sure, 1 plus 1 will still equal 2 under the new standards. But the changes are creating some apprehension among parents trying to figure out why the course called Algebra I is disappearing from middle schools, and what it means for math-whiz kids who want to take calculus someday or students who might not be ready for bivariate data analysis before puberty hits.

Bigger changes
In San Francisco, Deputy Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero is leading the changes, making sure math teachers know what to teach and how to teach it, even without new textbooks or a set teacher manual.

He has two words of advice for perplexed parents: “Don’t panic.”

This isn’t the first time math has gotten an overhaul in public schools.

In the 1960s, there was the much-criticized new math, which included set theory and number bases other than 10. That was scrapped eventually, replaced by the old math. And then, in 1975, there was the mandated switch to the metric system – a change beat back inch by inch.

This is bigger.

“I think it’s huge, actually,” said Brooke Arroyo, an eighth-grade math teacher at Denman Middle School in San Francisco.

Arroyo teaches Algebra I but is transitioning to the new system, which would have most eighth-graders taking a course called Math 8 or something similar, depending on the district.

To many parents and students, that might sound like an easier course. It won’t be, Arroyo said.

Local flexibility
“I think there’s a lot on labels, and I can understand that people think it’s being dumbed down,” she said. “Eighth-grade math is going to have geometry in it and algebra. It’s just not going to be called algebra. It’s not going to be called geometry.”

While the Common Core standards ensure that students in the same grade will be learning basically the same content whether they live in Minnesota, Kansas or California, there is local flexibility to adjust courses or content to accommodate both struggling and advanced students.

In Oakland, the school board is expected to vote this month on a middle and high school course sequence that offers advanced students the ability to combine Math 8 and Algebra I in eighth grade and then head into geometry in ninth grade.

The plan also offers students a second chance to merge Algebra II and math analysis in their sophomore or junior years. Both options allow students to reach Advanced Placement Calculus as juniors or seniors, as they can now.

Struggling students could see a supplemental math class on their daily schedule.

“We’re trying to keep all those options open,” said Phil Tucher, administrative manager of mathematics for Oakland Unified. “We don’t want people to perceive that we’re slowing down mathematics.”

The new Oakland plan ensures that advanced students don’t miss any content even if they choose an accelerated option. Currently, students who excel in math often skip a course – pre-algebra, for example – to reach calculus in high school. Many struggle to keep up or maintain grades because they don’t have a solid foundation in the basics, Tucher said.

San Francisco plans to offer similar options.

Making the switch to the Common Core hasn’t been easy, especially in math.

Textbooks lag behind
While the national standards tell schools what to teach and when, the how is left completely up to states, districts or even schools.

Schools have some flexibility in what content they teach, but standardized tests – which can be linked to funding and staffing – will be based on the new standards.

“Typically, you might open your textbook and go cover to cover,” said Guerrero of the San Francisco Unified School District.

But there aren’t official textbooks yet. Publishers are just starting to push out new materials, but in many districts, including some in the Bay Area, teachers and curriculum experts are creating their own and sharing them across the country via online forums and Google Drive.

“Here at Denman, teachers are not holding tight to the textbooks,” said Ann Lyon, the middle school’s instructional reform facilitator. “It’s an exciting challenge to come up with the kind of activities that are engaging to students.”

Those activities will look much different from the solve-for-X problems that typically come at the end of textbook chapters.

At Denman, under the Common Core, eighth-grade students might have to estimate a wildlife population using colored Goldfish crackers, an activity that uses algebraic functions, proportion and estimation, with a built-in snack at the end, Lyon said.

Yet getting everyone up to speed will take time — and there’s not a lot left.

The first round of standardized testing based on the Common Core will happen just more than a year from now.

But teachers can’t toss out the old textbooks quite yet.

Filling the gaps
Common Core math classes build on the content that students learned the previous year. And since seventh-grade students, for example, didn’t grow up under a Common Core background, there will be gaps in what they need to know to understand the content or to do well on the new state tests.

Teachers will have to fill in the blanks to ensure their students are ready for the Pythagorean theorem as well as roots and exponents in the eighth grade.

Oakland schools expect to be rid of Algebra I in middle schools and fully implementing Common Core by next fall. San Francisco officials are hoping to get there as well, but they are still assessing the district’s readiness.

In the meantime, like many parents, San Francisco dad Todd David is crossing his fingers that everything will work out when it comes to his son’s math classes.

“In general change is hard,” said David, whose child is a sixth-grader at Everett Middle School. Successful implementation will probably vary school to school and even teacher to teacher, he said. “To me it comes down a little bit to the luck of the draw.”

— Reach Jill Tucker at jtucker@sfchronicle.com

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