Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SFGate: S.F. schools to test new U.S. math standards

This from SFGate:

Four out of every 10 or so people say they hated math in school.

They didn't like fractions, they've told pollsters - or formulas, polynomials or even pi.

Solving for x was as bad if not worse than a pimple on prom night.

Yet with the 21st century job market increasingly requiring proficiency in math - and the critical thinking skills that come with it - the country can't afford that many math haters.

With that in mind, San Francisco has signed up to be among the first districts in the United States to put new national math standards in its classrooms. Adopted by 45 states, the standards' purpose is to make math more relevant and interesting, less about getting the right answer and more about why one might need to get that answer in the first place.

The school district has received a $3 million, three-year S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation grant to carry it out.

"We're getting killed across the world in terms of mathematics," said Terry Bergeson, executive director of the San Francisco School Alliance, a district partner in the implementation of the grant. "Around the rest of the world, the kids are ... applying mathematics to real-world problems. We teach formulas. We teach algorithms. We teach math facts."

And we bore students to tears.

Sleep inducing math

"I just think it's boring slash hard," said Jason Byers, 14, a freshman at San Francisco Mission High School. "I fell asleep last year."

The new "Common Core" math standards are sleeker and more in-depth than the old ones. They build on key mathematical concepts like measurement, size and volume. Kindergartners might be asked to identify the smallest of three apples, for example, while high school students would be required to calculate the growth of a bacterial colony.

It will be important that the students get the right answer, but the how and the why will be just as essential, said Common Core advocates.

"Kids will still have to add fractions. That's not going to change," said Phil Daro, an author of the new national math standards. But if it's successful, math "will look different."

That will especially be true in the early grades, with kindergarten students learning an elementary form of algebra even as they're being taught to add single digits.

They might count 10 bunnies and then move on to this question:

"A bunnies sat on the grass. B more bunnies hopped there. How many bunnies are on the grass now?"

The idea is to get them to come up with: "A + B = _."

Homework reformed

Homework is expected to look different too. The old "Do problems 1-30, even" will be tossed out the door in favor of a few problems at most, with an emphasis on applying math ideas.

Instead of teaching students to add fractions (cross multiply the numerators and denominators) and then solve 15 problems to get the right answer, they'll be asked to apply the concept to a real-life situation. Students would be encouraged to bounce ideas off each other about how to solve the problem.

Bergeson dream is to see 10-year-olds working out how to build a bridge in place of the current method of having a class of kids sitting in rows doing two-digit multiplication problems until their hand hurts.

"I think it's going to be a revolution in mathematics across the country," she said. "They can be a little engineer in the third grade."


  1. I don't know how this will change things. Right now, and I can't remember what SFUSD calls it, but SFUSD has this math program where they teach kids a wide variety of ways to do the same thing. So, kids don't learn one way to do long division -- they learn three or four. My kid has learning disabilities, and he found this approach COMPLETELY confusing! I had to hire a math tutor. I'm just scratching my head wondering what kind of kid this actually helps. I KNOW it screws kids who have learning disabilities. Anyone else have this problem?

  2. My son was "exposed to" fractions in kindergarten. He was completely confused by the whole idea, (picture tears) and I'm sure any K teacher worth his/her shiny apple would tell you that trying to teach kindergarteners fractions is pure folly. But it's the Everyday Math spiral approach to learning that our district has embraced. The kids are now learning fractions again in 1st. I hear they'll visit them again in 2nd.

    And yet, my child doesn't know how to write numbers. I suppose some would say this is my fault? Personally, I think our schools are so ambitious in the early years that we are teaching kids is that it's okay to be confused a lot of the time.

  3. Sounds like a step backwards to me, almost dumbing things down for the kids.

  4. It all depends on the skill of the teacher, no matter what the system. My kid's fantastic 8th grade algebra teacher, teaching an advanced honors class (beyond honors) regularly assigns massive and complex "real world" problems for which the kids have to use a variety of strategies to solve, and which they complete by working in groups. This is usually after a section of learning the basics of factoring polynomials, graphing equations, etc. in which they do end up with problem sets for homework. The group problems are both a reward and an exciting application of the math learned in the past weeks.

    This is under the current math system; it's simply the teacher figuring out how to teach it well. If the new system is anything like this, it will be great for the kids. I know of other teachers in the same school who simply assign pages of math problems, with no sense of application or complexity, and yes, the kids hate that.

  5. Those of you who voted for Obama voted for large government solutions imposed upon your community. Now you have it. Live with it or vote for new hopey changey.

  6. A republican will keep the temporary tax cut for billionaires permanent, letting them pay less than their secretaries because it's capital gains. In return we will see budget cuts and more rich get richer, poor get poorer economics. The rich claim with tax cuts, they'll create jobs, but they have money now and aren't creating them. And watch out if you have daughters, one Supreme Court appointment and your daughter's teen indiscretions may lead to you being an early grandparent and your daughter being forced by the cops to give birth when she doesn't wish to.

  7. What the #*&*%%$ does that weird diatribe have to do with math?

    My kid just started K this month. She knows fractions. You cut up an apple into fourths. You hold it together. You pull two halves apart. You pull those halves apart into fourths. You ask her for 1/4. Then 2/4 --- wow, she says, that's the same as a half! Then 3/4. Then 4/4 -- same as a whole! No tears, no confusion.

    K algebra: put down 3 red M & Ms, then a blue one. Then three red ones. Ask her what comes next. (That empty spot? It's for X. X = blue).

    K geometry: Take two right triangles. How many shapes can you make with them? Count the sides of each shape.

    Can she write her numbers? No. Have we ever done a drill or a worksheet? Is she a raging genius? No. But the other day we were at the farmer's market and she said, "Those baskets of edamame are $2.00. Can we get two?" I said yes. She said, "Or we could get three, and pay $6.00."

    I'm sending her to a school with a math program just like the one in the article.

  8. 2:59 PM: Hear hear! Up with sanity; enough "weird diatribes" of all stripes. Come on, folks -- let's focus on reality. This is not rocket science nor brain surgery. This is what "teaching fractions" looks like in primary education in the hands of a skilled teacher. That's all. Please leave the dogma at the door and discuss KINDERGARTEN.

    Speaking as a cognitive scientist, it is actually OK for kids to be confused some of the time, so long as they have the tools to get un-confused (like a decent teacher, peers to work with, books, maybe the internet...). Yeah, it ends up looking like 12:08 describes if it works, and right on through into postsecondary education and beyond. Problem comes when the tools are lacking -- then kids don't learn and they can also burn out (and so can their folks, obviously...).

  9. The reason we have the common core standards and the change which is the topic of this article is because of the major push by the Feds to adopt a national standard. California's standards as well as Massachusett's were superior but now we are all marching to one tune. This is what many of you wanted so don't complain.

  10. @12:05 which middle school does this teacher work at?
    Yes, we're in the market. :) Thanks!

  11. I love math.

    I love solving for x. Love polynomials. Fractions are a no brainer. . . like the alphabet for a person who loves to read.

    My daughter in first grade loves math to.

    I don't care what Obama does, don't care what the Republicans do. While attorneys and bankers are losing their jobs, I have mine.

    So if you like math, just do it (with your kids)! Don't wait to be rescued by the schools.

  12. I was a kid who thought she was "dumb" in math all through school, yet found once I was in the working world that I love playing with research, managing budgets, creating excel spreadsheets, etc. -- and that I am pretty good at it! What I realized is that I wasn't "dumb" in math at all, but memorizing math steps and formulas that had no connection to what was being solved made no sense to me at all. Only after working with research did I begin to understand (after high school and college statistics) what the "area under the curve" was.

    And whether we like it or not, different people learn differently. My son really had a hard time learning math facts in 4th grade. Despite many hours with flash cards, grilling him, worksheets - the approach wasn't sinking in (but sure worked on his 2nd grade sister who was watching and caught onto it early.) He started working with a "Making Math Real" tutor who came at it from a completely different angle - basically providing a visual/graphic way to approach learning math facts - something not for everyone, but certainly not shown him at school.

    A variety of techniques are needed and three cheers for teaching math that has some relevancy to real life!

  13. 10:19 am again -- I appreciate the comments of the K parents above, but I don't think you understand what Easy Math entails as you get into the older grades. So, for fifth grade, for example, the kids are not shown one way to add fractions with different denominators, they are shown THREE different ways and they are shown them SIMULTANEOUSLY. My kid with learning issues ended up mixing up different steps of the different alternatives, which honestly is not all that surprising. In other words, he couldn't keep the three different alternatives separate in his head and ended up mixing them up. Frankly, he wasn't the only one -- the teacher, who was really good, admitted herself that Easy Math was very hard for kids with learning issues -- and also for kids in the middle of the pack. I think it is great that, when a kid has problems with one approach, a good teacher gives them alternative approaches. I think it is a terrible idea to require every kid to learn three or four different approaches for the same mathematical operation. And for those posters who think this is some kind of political thing with the federal government forcing this, I don't think that's what is going on. My friends with kids in NY and Texas schools do NOT have this problem.

  14. I think the current program used in SFUSD is called "Everyday Math."

  15. "I think it is a terrible idea to require every kid to learn three or four different approaches for the same mathematical operation. "

    I completely agree. Pick one method and teach your kids that one method. After that, their free to try other methods.

    There's no accounting for the teaching methodologies of the schools. Unfortunately, some kids who probably could be good at math will be set back by years because of the poor teaching of math in schools, both public and private.

  16. I don't think it's necessarily bad to teach more than one way to do a math problem. The problem lies when you don't give kids enough time to work with the material and figure out which one works for them and really master the topic. My experience with Everyday Math is that it's a bit of a drive by. You shoot through 3 ways to do fractions on your way to doing a completely unrelated topic. The teachers are in such a rush to complete the ridiculous number of standards that the kids have no time to absorb anything.

    My daughter's math scores and confidence have plummeted with Everyday Math because she is just so confused. Teachers know that the kids will be "exposed" to the same topic the next year, there is no sense of accountability for their students mastering a particular topic. Teachers keep telling me it will all "click" for my daughter "next year." Well, that's what they said last year, and the year before that.

    The math scores at our elementary school have risen, but I really have to wonder how much of that is due to Everyday Math, and how much of it is due to parents throwing in the towel and hiring a tutor?

  17. Given perfect conditions and plenty of resources, it is great for kids to be presented with multiple approaches to problems (again, speaking as a cognitive scientist). However, we don't have perfect conditions and resources (however you want to define them -- time, skilled teachers, latitude...) vary!

  18. Don't know if the Alvarado parents want go comment here, but I heard from a parent whose son goes there that the pta got so fed up with Everyday Math and the confusion it was engendering that they hired a math tutor to teach kids the traditional way.

  19. My daughter is in 8th grade and has several times had to get 4 hours sleep to get her homework done in math. It is extreme. She has to do a sheet for 4 hours which is extra, not related to the other work she has to master to get an A. It is very hard.

  20. That's the race to teh bottom "globalized" world we live in.

    Political hipsters of various ilks keep touting the joys of globalization, but what they forget is that our children will increasingly work harder and spend more years in school, training for more difficult fields, for wages that will eventually normalize to the professional wage level in China or India . . . about one third to one fifth of what they have been in the US.

    You don't hear a peep from politicos like Pelosi or Feinstein or Obummer on this one. Globalization and unfettered free trade are all roses as far as they're concerned.

    So in the absense of any leadership in the country, get used to your kid sometimes getting only four hours of sleep in order to complete their math homework. That is, after all, what happens in Asia and India.

  21. I'm really surprised to hear parents saying they should just teach one way for math - no one learns the same way.

    What we need is more time to teach kids so that they are able to get enough time on math (hey, extra hour of school anyone? Texas and most of the rest of the country goes to school 1 hour more a day than California!)

    Seriously, California kids go to school a month less in hours than almost everywhere else. It's amazing we do as well as we do, all things considered.

  22. 10:15:

    Just out of curiosity, do you practise any form of mathematics in your work?

    Addition, substraction, multiplication and division, greatest common factor, lowest common denominator, cross multiplication . . . those are the bread and butter of more advanced math, such as algebra.

    Most people I have met do these operations one or two basic ways. It doesn't matter where they have come from in the world.

    So the idea that somehow we are cheating our kids by not teaching them three different methods of getting the lowest common demonitor, at once, no less, is a joke. Any wingbat, once he or she has learned one method well, will start to develop other techniques.

    You're fooling yourself that it is somehow "more creative" to confuse students by teaching them three different methods of a basic technique at the same time.

    Stick with graphic design, or dental assistance, bank teller or real-estate, or whatever it is you do, 10:15. It's because of nuts like you that we are in such a mess.

    In any case, once kids can quickly do simple arithmetic, including factoring and fractions, they can then get on with the business of Algebra, which will start to give them the mathematical dexterity to develop their own math techniques . . . without having to be "rescued" by Everyday Math and without having to stay up until 3am.

  23. 9:12
    Unnecessary dig, but...
    Yes, I do math in my work life: finance, accounting and market and product research.

    And it is simply a fact that we have an hour less school a day in California than most of the other states. Less time to learn - oh, let's say MATH.

    You seem to have missed my point: Not everyone learns the same way. Back when I learned math, they showed you one way - if that way didn't make sense, you were just branded as dumb.

    Only much later, in college and really when I started in the work world, was I introduced to approaching math & statistics in a different manner. This was helpful for me - I found I was actually good at it. The secret was making math relevant to solving a problem vs. memorizing a bunch of steps.

    I've experienced the same thing with my two kids - one easily grasped math facts with flashcards. The other, no matter how long and often we did it, just didn't sink in. Being a more visual and conceptual learner, this child find success through a completely different visual cue technique utilized by "Making Math Real" (I know lots of kids in SFUSD whose parents pay tutors from this program, but they have yet to penetrate SFUSD to do a teacher professional development - sigh.)

    Just like most things in life, there is no one size fits all solution in life.

  24. OK, 3:02.

    I'm talking about mathematical synthesis.

    There are many aspects of statistics. In order to synthesize in math, you need to have a level of automaticity in arithmetic operations. That's what they're trying to teach in elementary school.

    If you don't have that, you won't be able to go on to algebra and then calculus. You may be able to understand the simpler aspects of a spreadsheet and statistics. However, if you don't have a level of arithmetic automaticity, you won't be able to move on to algebra or calculus.

    Again, kids don't need to know three ways to do long division or factoring. If they're having a learning difficulty with one particular method of executing these basic operations, they will likely have trouble with any method.

    Many kids who have the ability to reach automaticity in arithmetic operations, do not. They don't because we waste their time trying to teach the same thing multiple ways. They are taught by teachers who don't understand the goal of teaching arithmetic. Other kids don't acquire automaticity because they don't get enough practise.

    There is no point trying to compare your experience in an applied statistics course with the calculus courses that an engineer, economist or scientist would take in order to be successful.

    Applied statistics is easy and doesn't require automaticity, especially if you can use a spreadsheet. It's true that a bank teller or marketing type can used their calculator to calculate things like 400-40. (I mention this because recently I actually had a bank tell do this. They couldn't do 400-40 in their head and had to use a calculator.)

    You can't do well on the SAT if you can't do trig and algebra. That really reduces ones options in the long run.

    So, again, automaticity in arithmetic operations is square one on the way to the SAT and higher education in any mathematical/technical field.

  25. I agree with 12:24. There is no point trying to teach some of the fundamentals in more than one way if not enough time is spent actually learning how to do them.

    I would rather to have kids stick to a good method, with some strategies thrown in, but not 3 different ways to solve a problem! That would be plain confusing to a child!

  26. I scored in the top 3% on the math SAT with essentially no algebra (lousy teacher) and no trig. I did have all my basic facts nailed, can do arithmetic in my head without a calculator, and can apply common sense to math problems to eliminate obviously wrong answers. I suppose that plus some lucky guesses caused my relatively high SAT score. So I have to agree that committing basic math facts to memory--and memory function generally for subjects like spelling and vocab--is useful for standardized testing. But I have virtually no strategic thinking or analytic ability. The memorization approach is a tough go for kids with poor memory function. My kid gets math concepts quite well but we drill drill drill and he still takes twice as long as he should to fill out his math fact practice worksheets. I feel so lost with him . . .

  27. 12:14 PM, me again from yesterday.

    OK, I agree, that we drill, drill, drill.

    That's why I don't like the idea of teaching basic operations by multiple methods. These basic operations do require practice, call it *drill* if you want. You want to get the most bang for the buck for this necessary rote learning.

    What we need to do is get kids to have automaticity of basic math operations, AND THEN MOVE ON.

    There are many parts of the word where algebra is introduced in fifth grade. Here, we often waste fifth and sixth grade endlessly drilling mulitiplication and long division.

    It's with algebra that quantative analytical ability begins. Unfortunately, you can't become good at this if you don't have automaticity in basic functions. That's pretty much the concensus of the math world. You have to nail the mechanics so that you can move on to the more creative aspects of math.

    I'm happy that you nailed the SAT and found your way to liking math.

  28. I know at least one SF public elementary school is looking into Singapore Math. I'm guessing they're finding that Everyday Math isn't cutting it. I suppose, if adopted, it will be a year or two until teachers are fairly skilled at teaching the new method.

  29. Getting a good nights sleep is critical, but taking it a step further, there is a way to use sleep to sort of "hack" your brain into retaining more of what you study.

    If you study right up until you go to sleep, you will retain more information in your short-term memory. Which your mind will transfer into your long term memory as you sleep.

  30. Brandeis already uses Singapore Math - the only private or public school in SF to do so (i believe).