getting to the core

For math teachers, conversion to new standards may be tough

This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.

Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state’s learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.

“A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade,” Xuereb said. “I feel that I’m going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps.”

New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them. Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core’s long-overdue rigor.

But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially. William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who has researched the effect of the Common Core on learning, said students who miss a lesson the first time around are at risk of missing the concept entirely.

“If it’s done really carefully it might work, but that would be my worry, that this would require fairly careful thought about how to do that across the grades so that what’s happening in one grade will line up with the next,” he said. “If they’re not ramping this up from first grade on in a logical fashion … then the transition to more advanced math will be horrendous, too.”

The city has offered some help. Two weeks ago it published suggestions for topics teachers might tackle after the state tests, the last aligned to the old standards. And officials recently urged principals to use unused snow days in June as planning days for teachers preparing for the next phase of the rollout, which will feature two Common Core-aligned units and exams aligned to the content of the standards.

But some teachers say they have had to wait too long for clear direction. Molly Elverson, a seventh-grade math teacher at M.S. 228 in the Bronx, said she anticipates many stumbling blocks next year as she reconciles the new curriculum expectations with the realities of what students come to class prepared to learn.

“Integers are in seventh grade in New York State, [but] for Common Core, in sixth grade. So when do we start?” said Eleverson. “It’s all the logistics of it, figuring out when am I going to incorporate this, when am I going to have the time? And when am I supposed to assume they have learned it all?”

Similar shifts abound. For example, the Common Core tells teachers to move their units on computation with fractions  backwards, to fifth grade, even though that unit is now typically introduced in sixth grade. It also moves some concepts forward a year — such as the Pythagorean Theorem, which is taught in seventh grade but will be taught in eighth in the future.

Elverson said she feels fortunate to be part of a small math department of just three teachers who talk frequently. They have met as a group to discuss the rollout and agree upon when to teach integers and other concepts. But Department of Education resources to aid their discussion have been slow to arrive.

Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said the city has helped schools as much as it can, given that the state has not yet released a “final blueprint” for next year’s math expectations or offered sample Common Core-aligned test questions. For the 80 percent of city schools that are still using the math curriculum the city mandated in 2003, the Common Core is going to mean radical changes, he said.

“It’s true that this is going to be a change in terms of the topics that are taught and the number of topics. Planning for that is difficult given that we don’t know all the information at this stage,” he said.

Polakow-Suransky said the city would be delivering more guidance to schools as it learns more. “I don’t know if it will be as early as everyone wants it to be but it will be before the end of the school year,” he said, adding that the department would allocate funding so schools can pay for curriculum planning sessions, ideally over the summer.

Xeureb said she would welcome the additional resources but is worried about waiting too long for them.

“What I do during my summers is I plan. If they don’t have a curriculum, that’s what I’m going to do this summer. I’ll have to sit down and really start doing it myself in July,” she said. “I can’t just take something and print it out — if they have a curriculum on the internet, I’m going to edit and revise it myself based on who the students are, so it would be nice to have it now, while we’re still in school and can plan as a department more easily.”

Xuereb and the other math teachers at WHEELS will attend a training conference held by the National Council for Teaching Math this summer, and she also devoted some time this school year to preparing her students for concepts that have been moved from seventh grade to sixth.

Tacking Common Core topics onto their existing curriculum increased Xuereb’s workload, but in some ways it was no different from what she does every year to get her students to the same starting point after they arrive with widely varying math backgrounds.

Indeed, some students have always arrived in class in September without adequate preparation, a reality that Josh Thomases, the city’s deputy chief academic officer for instruction, said justifies the city’s speedy Common Core rollout.

“As long as I have been an educator, there have been complaints from schools kindergarten through college about how their students are unprepared,” he said. “This work becomes more challenging in the face of a push towards understanding what it is to have standards. In this city, you can find examples of schools that are figuring this out, with the same resources as other schools, in really exciting ways.”

New York State is rolling out the Common Core in full earlier than many other states, but teachers elsewhere are being asked to adopt the new standards with even less preparation than city teachers are getting, according to Schmidt — making teachers across the country in for a rocky transition, he said.

“Any time you shift — and this is a fairly radical shift — there is no simple, easy way to do this,” Schmidt said. “It’s going to be hard on the kids, hard on the teachers, and when the first set of tests come out it’s going to be a miserable set of results. It’s all part of the process, and this is simply the best chance we have to give our students a good mathematics education.”

Already, teachers say the approach of next year’s Common Core-aligned tests have already wreaked havoc on their students.  Xuereb and Elverson both said questions on this year’s sixth- and seventh- grade exams threw students for a loop by asking them to complete tasks that under the current standards they weren’t expected to know.

“My kids kind of had breakdowns in the classroom because they saw a lot of these questions this year that I had never taught them because it was Common Core,” she said. “I know I had prepped my kids to say there are some field questions for next year, but you could see the effect on my students. They were visibly upset. It made me feel like they lost confidence in me a little bit.”

To avoid test anxiety and smooth the transition, Ryan Hall said teachers at his school, Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, opted to align all of this year’s lessons to Common Core math standards. That practice-run far exceeds the city’s one-unit mandate, and he said they hoped it would leave students better prepared for high school, where the curriculum expectations are also changing, though more slowly.

“It was tough this year because I had so much more material to cover,” Hall said. “I taught every eighth-grade math standard, I taught every eighth-grade Common Core standard, and I’m trying to teach every ninth-grade algebra Regents standard.”

But he said no amount of planning will be able to compensate for the scale of the changes.

“The transitional years are really confusing because the Common Core is designed assuming a certain knowledge that [students] are coming into the grade with,” Hall said. “It is going to be pretty complicated for the next couple years, to ask, ‘what have they been exposed to, and what gaps will we need to fill anyway?'”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.