Published Online: April 24, 2012
Published in Print: May 9, 2012, as Math Teaching Often Doesn't Fit With Common-Core Standards

Math Teaching Often Doesn't Fit With New Standards

Topics broached at unprescribed grade levels

Many mathematics teachers are teaching topics at higher or lower grade levels—and for more years—than the Common Core State Standards recommend, according to preliminary results from new research.

That finding suggests that when the new standards are fully implemented, many math teachers could face significant shifts in what they will teach.

The information is part of a research effort led by William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who is widely known for an influential 1996 study that found the typical course of study in U.S. math was “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

His new researchRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, which does not yet have a release date, examines a nationally representative group of more than 13,000 K-12 math teachers and 600 district curriculum directors in more than 40 states. It seeks to gauge their readiness to put the common standards in math, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, into practice. Early results were presented at a conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers here April 19.

Mr. Schmidt’s team at Michigan State’s Center for the Study of Curriculum, in East Lansing, asked the curriculum directors when key topics in the common-core math standards were first introduced, and in what grade levels those topics continued to be taught.

They found that typical coverage of the topics in common-core standards lags two to three years behind the grades envisioned in the common core, and persists longer.

Key topics introduced in 2nd grade in the common standards, for instance, are currently introduced between 1st and 3rd grades, the study says. The variance was even wider in middle school: Topics that the common core introduces in 6th grade are now introduced between 3rd and 8th grades, Mr. Schmidt’s research shows.

Additionally, topics envisioned as unique to a given grade in the common standards now persist for multiple years, the study found. Focus topics of the standards at the 4th grade level, for instance, show up in classrooms from 1st through 8th grades, according to the research.

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Gauging Attitudes

Teachers appear to be reluctant to shift the grade at which topics are taught, the study’s findings suggest. Only one-quarter said they would drop a topic if the common standards specify that it be taught at another grade level.

Responding to surveys and discussing the standards in focus groups, math teachers overwhelmingly supported the standards, which emerged two years ago from a project led by the CCSSO and the National Governors Association. Nine in 10 of the teachers reported that they had heard of the standards, and seven in 10 said they had read them. Ninety percent said they liked the new learning guidelines.

“By and large, opposition to the common core is not coming from teachers. They just want support to teach it,” Leland Cogan, a Michigan State University research associate who works with Mr. Schmidt, told state representatives as he presented the preliminary findings at the CCSSO gathering.

Nine in 10 of the K-6 teachers said they liked and would teach the standards. That figure slipped to 85 percent in grades 7 and 8, and to 82 percent in high school.

Nearly 8 percent of the teachers surveyed in grades 1-3 said they didn’t like the standards but would teach them anyway. Nine percent of those in grades 4-6 said the same thing. Discontent correlated with grade level: More than 13 percent of the math teachers in grades 7 and 8 said they didn’t like the standards but would go ahead and teach them. In high school, the figure was more than 16 percent.

Fewer than 1 percent of teachers at all grade levels said they “don’t like and won’t teach” the standards.

Old vs. New

Other findings raise the question of whether teachers understand the differences between their states’ former standards and the new ones, Mr. Schmidt said in an email. When they viewed sample topics for their respective grades, eight in 10 reported that they reflect “pretty much the same” content as their states’ previous standards.

“The data suggest that most teachers do not recognize how difficult” it will be to move from their states’ former standards to the new ones, Mr. Schmidt said.

“Given their willingness, I remain optimistic,” he said, “but I believe we have to make them aware of how different these standards are and provide them with materials that both make them aware of the differences and provide them with materials to help in the implementation.”

Large numbers of teachers feel unprepared to teach topics in the new standards, the study found.

One-third reported that they had not taken part in any activity designed to help them implement the new standards. And large proportions—as low as 20 percent and as high as 75 percent—reported feeling unprepared to teach some common-core math topics.

When asked to choose possible obstacles to putting the new standards into practice, teachers put a lack of parent support (49.7 percent) and the need for textbooks that support the standards (28.9 percent) at the top of their lists. Concerns about state tests’ alignment to the material also was often named (28.8 percent), along with students’ difficulty learning the material (20 percent) and a “lack of needed mathematics knowledge among teachers” (15 percent).

Vol. 31, Issue 30, Page 7

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