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How Common Core math can help close the equity gap

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Career-Technical Education

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Full and fair implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice could help close the achievement gap between students in schools with high poverty rates and their peers in wealthier districts, according Michigan State University statistics and education professor William Schmidt.

Schmidt, the lead author of  a recent study on how uneven delivery of Common Core math standards has contributed to this disparity, outlined some of the barriers and proposed solutions during the webinar “Mathematics Instruction and the Common Core: Where Do We Go from Here?

Schmidt said his research team found that inequality in learning begins in the home since low-income families have fewer resources in general. However, 37% of the inequality in learning is school-based, he noted.

“This is where the Common Core comes in,” Schmidt said. “It’s the word ‘common.’ The goal of the Common Core is to assure that all children receive the common set of standards so the distribution of the coverage of mathematics is not related to social class.”

One of the main barriers to achieving that “common” coverage of math topics, Schmidt discovered during an earlier study, was the uneven presentation of the math standards in current textbooks.

According to his earlier analysis of a series of textbooks for K-8 students, Schmidt discovered that the majority were missing about a quarter of Common Core math standards that should have been introduced at specific grade levels, while only about half of the books covered standards that were designed to be introduced for that particular grade. Other books contained standards intended for either earlier or later grades.

“We didn’t find one single series of textbooks that covered all of the Common Core State Standards for math,” Schmidt said.

What that means for teachers in the classroom, Schmidt concluded, is that teachers with less training, who are more likely working in low-income districts, were using the textbook to guide their curriculum, resulting in lessons that failed to provide students with instruction in all of the standards.

Another barrier is how teachers see their own level of proficiency in delivering the standards. According to a self-reporting survey of fourth and fifth-grade teachers conducted by Schmidt’s team, 75% said they were prepared to teach whole numbers and common fractions, while only 22% said they felt prepared to teach 3D geometry. Only 5% believed they could teach slope and trigonometry.

Among middle-school teachers, Schmidt’s survey found 70% of teachers were comfortable teaching coordinates and lines, while 51% felt adept at linear equations. Only 10% reported being comfortable teaching logarithmic equations.

While this may explain some of the inequality that persists in the classroom, Schmidt says it also brings up bigger problems of teacher education in general.

“This may very well be a condemnation of the colleges of education who simply don’t demand more levels of preparation in mathematics,” he said.

Keys to improving delivery of Common Core math

To improve delivery of Common Core math standards, Schmidt suggested principals work to ensure teachers are spending the time necessary in the classroom to cover all of the grade-specific standards and reinforce with teachers some of the core goals of the standards, including building children’s literacy skills.

To develop those, Schmidt emphasizes that while hands-on projects are a necessary part of learning Common Core math standards, teachers should also spend time conveying quantitative and abstract reasoning skills so students can hone their interpretation skills. When students are math literate, Schmidt said, they have a deeper understanding of the structure of math and higher-order thinking skills that will help them advance either to college or into the workforce.

“I think more and more that is the nature of the work in the world,” Schmidt said, “even in fields such as marketing or politics. There’s so much that is driven by data collections, and surveys, and understanding statistics and knowing how to think and interpret things quantitatively,”

To increase the success of Common Core math standards and reduce inequality in its delivery also requires teachers and schools to do more to educate parents and the public about the overall value of the standards by finding ways to show its effectiveness. Students, Schmidt argues, are still learning the same basic algorithms that their parents learned, but the standards convey a deeper number literacy that builds the essential college and career skills of qualitative thinking and reasoning.

“The Common Core still wants you to memorize your multiplication tables. It still wants you to understand the basic algorithms for multiplying and subtracting,” Schmidt asserts. “That is a big part of the Common Core. The other part is understanding why it works the way it works so you can understand the number system well enough for the kids to go beyond just the algorithm. They actually have the understanding that it may help them solve a problem of a more complex and applied nature.”

Schmidt said teachers have used many methods to educate parents, including sending material home with students explaining the background and goals of the standards and how they can improve mathematical literacy.

“If parents had a better understanding that in the end [their children] would do math like they did it but the route was different and why it’s different it would go a long way [to reducing parent anxiety],” Schmidt said.

Candace Chellew is an author and freelance writer. She is the contributing editor for Math Education SmartBrief. During her career as a journalist, she has worked for CNN in Atlanta and — for more than 10 years — worked in higher-education public relations at Georgia State University and the University of South Carolina.