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BELLE CHASSE, La.—It’s the fifth day of school at Belle Chasse Primary and Debbie Giroir’s first graders show off everything they know about the number five.
Jasmine, a small girl with braids, stands in front of the classroom, sketching out different ways to represent the number: five triangles, five tally marks, 2 + 3 = 5.
“Does anyone have another way we can make five?” Giroir asks. The answers come fast and furiously.
“Five plus zero!”
“Four plus one!”
“I have another way!”
“I think they tricked me,” Giroir tells the eager students. “I think I’ve got third graders here.”
Last year’s first graders did not get off to so strong a start. Hurricane Isaac and a toilet explosion interrupted the opening weeks, sending Giroir’s class home for several days. But she also attributes the auspicious beginning to a less random, ungovernable force: the national curriculum standards known as the Common Core.
The new standards have ignited political battles about the role of the federal government in public education, America’s international competitiveness, and the amount of time and money spent on standardized testing. But in classrooms across Louisiana and dozens of other states, the response has been more pragmatic than ideological as teachers—some optimistic and others resigned—work to align their approach to the new standards: adding more non-fiction texts to syllabi, for instance, and adjusting the way fractions are taught to emphasize that they are actually numbers of varying sizes (and not just pieces of pizza).
Indeed, provided that most states continue to plow forward with the Common Core, the deepest legacy of the standards will likely be felt more in educational than political realms.
This is the first in an occasional series looking at how Belle Chasse Primary School, in suburban New Orleans, is adjusting to the Common Core standards that are reshaping teaching in classrooms throughout Louisiana. The second installment will look at parent reaction to the Common Core.
Arguably nowhere will the standards prompt more immediate changes than in elementary math classes, where many teachers, like Giroir, are now expected to cover fewer skills in a given year, but to teach those skills in greater depth. Students move more slowly through arithmetic, subtraction, multiplication and other operations that build up to complex math.
“Before it was like, ‘Today we taught tally marks and if you don’t get tally marks, too bad, we’re moving on,’ ” said Giroir.
Giroir’s first graders are part of the first cohort of students at Belle Chasse Primary who will be taught entirely under the Common Core. The school introduced the standards in its kindergarten and first-grade classrooms last school year, and this fall are spreading the approach to all grade levels. Compared to her colleagues in older grades, Giroir is a seasoned hand when it comes to the Core. She says she has several “kinks” to work out this year, but remains optimistic over all.
Some experts have criticized the math standards for moving too slowly. If educators follow the Common Core through middle school, for instance, students will not encounter Algebra I until high school.
“If you do algebra in grade eight, then you…can reach calculus by grade 12,” said Ze’ev Wurman, a former Department of Education official under George W. Bush who participated in the creation of California’s highly-regarded math standards. Calculus is “not mandatory for being accepted to colleges, but selective colleges expect it,” Wurman added.
Jason Zimba, a professor of physics and math at Bennington College in Vermont and lead writer of the math standards, says they include “an awful lot of algebra before eighth grade,” even though the first full course doesn’t come until high school.
But Zimba also acknowledges that ending with the Common Core in high school could preclude students from attending elite colleges. In many cases, the Core is not aligned with the expectations at the collegiate level. “If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core,” Zimba said.
Giroir appreciates the slower, more deliberative pace—at least in the early grades. She believes her students are already so fluent up to the number five partly because they learned the first five numbers backwards and forwards in kindergarten last year, as the Common Core outlines. She notes that in the past she sometimes had to move from one skill to another regardless of whether all the students were ready since standardized tests focused more on breadth than depth.
“The problem with the old approach was that if a child didn’t get addition, they are not going to get subtraction,” she says.
Summer School for Teachers
The teachers at Belle Chasse Primary have immersed themselves in the Common Core for months. Over the summer, the district and school held voluntary professional development sessions virtually non-stop and teachers brainstormed new lesson plans well into the evenings. “Every day over the summer we had at least 20 teachers here,” said Shelley Ritz, the principal. “For teachers who have been teaching 10, 12 years, we are asking them to change a mindset.”
Belle Chasse Primary serves about 1,200 students in grades pre-kindergarten through four. The student enrollment is socioeconomically and racially diverse, with about 60 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch; about 20 percent of the students are African-American, 69 percent white, and six percent Hispanic. Plaquemines Parish, which is very rural, is the southernmost parish in Louisiana, stretching from the New Orleans suburbs, including Belle Chasse, down to the endangered coastal bayous.
Giroir had knee replacement surgery early in June, but returned for professional development two weeks later. “I felt like I had to be here,” she said. Despite the lost summer, Giroir says she’s glad her district provided so many professional development opportunities. She’s talked with colleagues outside Plaquemines Parish who had more relaxing summers, but feel rudderless and unprepared now.
Louisiana adopted the Common Core standards three years ago. Forty-four other states and the District of Columbia have also adopted the standards, although those decisions are under attack in a handful of states. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a supporter of the standards, provided an incentive by giving states points in their Race to the Top applications if they approved the standards.
The Common Core does not mandate a given curriculum to schools; it lays out skills students should learn at different grade levels. By the end of their year with Giroir, for instance, the first graders should know how to add and subtract, understand place value (ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc.), and be able to count to 120, among other skills. In Louisiana, public schools are phasing in the Common Core over a few years. Louisiana is part of a consortium of states, known as the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers), working on developing tests aligned with the Common Core; they will be ready for the 2014-2015 school year. This year, Louisiana students will be tested fully on the Core standards using one-time assessments created by state officials.
Ritz has encouraged her teachers to dive in as soon as possible even though the first PARCC test dates are a year and a half away. “We can’t go wrong if we go full-blown Common Core now,” she said. “We can’t wait until the big assessment. You’ve got to stay ahead of the game.”
The biggest challenge has been for some teachers to see themselves as creators of their own curriculum, she said. Many had grown accustomed to following the textbook and teacher’s manual—at least part of the time. By contrast, the Common Core lays out general standards and educational principles, but it does not tell teachers how to teach. “It can feel like you are a first-year teacher again,” she said.
Learning by Doing
In Giroir’s first grade classroom, traditional math textbooks and worksheets are relics of the past. In their place are “manipulatives”—physical objects such as brightly colored blocks, dice, cubes, popsicle sticks, and dominoes—that students can use to explore the math concepts they are studying. When learning that two plus three equals five, for instance, they can count out the equation using their cubes instead writing it over and over again on a worksheet.
For Giroir, Common Core has prompted two broad shifts in the way she teaches math. First, her approach is less didactic and one-dimensional. Instead of telling the class that two plus three equals five and having them copy it, she allows her students to use their manipulatives and teach each other different ways of solving the equation.
After Jasmine taught a brief lesson in the many facets of the number five during the first week of school, students created their own number journals, representing each of the first 10 numbers in a variety of different ways. One student drew one cookie, two flowers, three balloons, four balls, five triangles, six lines, seven squares, eight balloons, nine lines, and 10 dashes. The students bantered quietly among themselves, asking each other to identify images of ant eaters and vampires representing different numbers.
Prior to Common Core, Giroir did not prioritize independent, student-led work nearly as much. She also relied much more on her curriculum guide. “Now there’s not a teacher manual where it says, ‘Day one I’m doing this; day two I’m doing this… .’”
The other broad shift curtails the number and range of skills that Giroir covers in a given year. The first graders spend a lot more time learning how to represent and manipulate small numbers, for instance. But they spend far fewer hours on measurement and telling time, and skip over money entirely.
“Before, they had a little bit of everything, but just didn’t dig deep,” said Giroir.
This was the hardest adjustment for the veteran teachers to make, said Ritz. “They would ask, ‘What do you mean we’re not going to show (students) what a quarter looks like anymore?’ ” she said. “The younger teachers aren’t as overwhelmed. They aren’t as intimidated by the new.”
Giroir started teaching in her 40s, when her own children were mostly grown. This fall marks her tenth year of teaching, and the start of her fourth year at Belle Chasse Primary.
With the implementation of Common Core over the last two years, she has said goodbye to rulers, Mr. Gallon Man (a visual aide that helped students learn units of measurement such as pints, quarts, and gallons), and coins.
She hasn’t taken the losses too hard—noting that fewer and fewer people even use coins and that it’s far more important for her students to understand concepts such as place value.
“The old coin lessons are not even appropriate as people shift to debit cards,” she said. “Even the proverbial ‘tooth fairy’ brings paper money nowadays.”
District by District
By the end of the first week of first grade, Giroir is convinced her young charges are already thinking differently about math. When asked how to represent numbers, they volunteer addition and subtraction equations—like six minus one as a way to represent five. Giroir decides she will be able to introduce abstract word problems far sooner than in previous years.
Her biggest concern is that Common Core will become the latest in a long series of education fads abandoned in their infancy, and before educators know if they work. While the teachers and principal of Belle Chasse Primary have put their hearts and minds into learning the new standards, Giroir fears that the implementation might be spotty and inconsistent across the state. One colleague in a different district told Giroir that her school would not provide manipulatives, for instance. The teachers were reluctant to shell out the money on their own.
“It will be a failure if we don’t get on track and that means teachers have to be trained and principals on board,” Giroir said. She worries that if PARCC scores are low a few years from now, it will mean poorly trained teachers “fell back to the textbook,” not that Common Core is misguided in theory.
Giroir’s curious to see if the new standards change the educational trajectories of any of her students. She thinks of her own lack of interest in math growing up—at least compared to subjects like reading—and wonders if she would have felt differently about the subject if she had learned it another way.
“I don’t think mathematically,” she said, adding later, “Is (Common Core) going to help my children think more mathematically? I hope so.”