November 13, 2012
The city’s teachers union has been clamoring for more time for teachers to prepare for the elementary and middle school state tests, which will be aligned to new curriculum standards this spring. Not so for the city’s high school teachers, who have another year to prepare for new tests.
The Department of Education is requiring high school teachers to align two units each semester this year to the Common Core. But beyond that, some teachers have said that without assessments to plan backwards from, they are at a loss about how to proceed, while others view the extra year as license to delay making more substantive changes.
But some high school teachers are seeking out help with the Common Core now, reasoning that it’s smart to work with the new standards while there’s still time to troubleshoot before students face tests based on them.
For math teachers at 14 Bronx schools, support is coming from the network hired to support their schools, New Visions for Public Schools. With a $13 million, five-year innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the help of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, New Visions is piloting a Common Core-aligned ninth-grade algebra curriculum in the hopes that it will challenge students more and build teachers’ skills.
In math, the Common Core expects teachers to cover fewer topics and instead push students to understand a few concepts thoroughly and apply that knowledge to solve real-life questions. So the New Visions curriculum, called “Accessing Algebra through Inquiry,” or A2i, provides teachers with abundant multi-step word problems and tasks that require students to think outside the textbook, then explain in writing how they used math concepts to solve practical questions.
The curriculum also asks teachers to structure their units differently than they have in the past, using special group projects and midpoint assessments to check students’ understanding.
Schools using A2i this year get a visit from a New Visions coach each week and send their teachers for extra training at least once a month.
Janet Price, New Visions’ director of instruction, said she expected to face trouble getting math teachers on board with the new curriculum, knowing that they might not see an immediate payoff from it this year.
“The kids still have to be prepared for the Regents, and whoever writes the Regents is not listening to the other part of the State Education Department,” she said. “They’re including a lot of questions on topics that the Common Core suggests should not be part of the math [tests], and that’s creating a big problem for us.”
But at a Friday-morning training at New Visions’ Chelsea offices last month, teachers said they thought the value of pushing their students to tackle more challenging work outweighed the risk of giving short shrift to some topics that will appear on this year’s state tests.
“Asking a student to take new information and make sense of it, and solve a problem that’s longer than a minute, I think that’s really valuable,” said Eric Benzel, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science.
“In general I feel like students think my class is a lot harder … but I think they enjoy it,” he added. “Students are used to failure being a really bad thing in math, but this is the first class where failure isn’t necessarily bad. A problem is something you actually have to try, and fail, and try something else, to get the answer.”
The paradigm shift has made for a bumpy start to the school year, some of the teachers said.
“It’s just so challenging because the kids weren’t taught like this before. In the past, the teacher models the problem and similar problems to work with,” said Michaela Pestejo, a math teacher at the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science.
In A2i, “formative assessments” are key to helping teachers get their students through the heightened struggle of learning something new. Two thirds of the way through each unit, small groups of students are asked to complete a worksheet about what they learned up to that point, and whether they can apply that knowledge to new problems.
After the group activity, the teacher returns the assessments to students and allows them to “fix up” their answers, Price explained, giving them a chance to rethink their work before handing it in for grading.
“You’re finding out whether they have the math or not while there is still time to do something about it before that final test and closing the book on that unit,” Price said. “The only way you’re going to know if the kids understand it or not is to look carefully at their work.”
Russell West, New Visions’ senior lead instructional specialist, said what makes A2i remarkable is not its individual elements — many schools already have them in place — but the way they are assembled.
“This is actually nothing brand new; this is stuff people have been working on for twenty years,” he said. “We’re just pulling it all together to support what the teachers are doing around the Common Core.”
The curriculum — which New Visions is rolling out to more of its schools, and in more grades, next year — is mostly new to New York City, West and Price said, though it has been used by a few schools in the past year, including the La Raza Network, which has a school in Brooklyn. The assessments are also being piloted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Georgia. The Shell Center, creator of the math assessments, has created about 60 math Common Core assessments for schools to use this year. It will be making more, and New Visions will be expanding the program to more schools next year.
The expansion will come as students are set to take Common Core-aligned Regents exams in math for the first time. Until then, teachers using the A2i curriculum are hoping that it doesn’t compromise their ability to help students pass this year’s test.
“We’re trying to hit two birds with one stone, in very different areas,” said Francesca DiPietro, another Collegiate Institute for Math and Science teacher. “That makes this year more difficult for us.”
The teachers said their solution so far to keep students from shutting down when faced with the tougher math problems has been to offer more tutoring, and to review lessons over multiple days, but they said it’s hard to do that while also covering the material students will see on exams they need to pass to graduate.
It’s true that the state’s old standards and the Common Core diverge at several points, West said. But he said A2i lets teachers cover their bases by including topics from the old standards as they prepare students to answer more complex questions.
“Triangles are the perfect example of a ninth-grade topic that isn’t in the ninth-grade Common Core,” he said. Instead, trigonometry is a 10th-grade topic. So, West said, “during this transition we’re making sure the kids are being asked to use the skills with triangles in the tasks that we’re giving them this year.”
Benzel said working with A2i has underscored his wish that high school exams would be overhauled faster — exactly the opposite of what some elementary and middle school educators say they want.
“What we’re really assessed on as teachers and students right now is … the ability to solve these single-step, algorithmic, terrible problems that the Regents is built on,” he said. “I’m trying to make the transition, but we’re anticipating the future while we’re still stuck in these 40-year-old assessments.”