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This year the public schools in Mississippi are rolling out the new Common Core standards. The idea is for all kids to learn the same material no matter where they live. Jackie Mader is following Quitman County Elementary, a poor, rural school in the Delta. On this first visit, she looks at how teachers are bringing the new standards into math class.

LAMBERT, Miss. — It’s early morning in Tyler Corbin’s third-grade math class at Quitman County Elementary, and Corbin is about to teach his students how to divide. He draws 24 stars on his electronic whiteboard, and then draws three circles below them. With the class counting along, he drags stars one at a time into the circles to create three equal groups.

It may not seem like the traditional method of division. That’s because Quitman County Elementary is in the midst of rolling out the Common Core standards, which detail what students are supposed to learn in math and English in kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards are more challenging than Mississippi’s old ones. Instead of learning to count to 20 by the end of kindergarten, students must know how to count to 100. And instead of learning one or two ways to multiply, students in Corbin’s class learned half a dozen methods.

“They learned five times four is twenty,” Corbin said. “They learned five groups with four in each group gives me twenty things all together. They learned skip counting by five, ‘five, ten, fifteen, twenty.’ They learned repeated addition, ‘five plus five is ten, ten plus five is fifteen and fifteen plus five is twenty.’”

Related: Cramming for Common Core: one Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

Corbin says that one of the goals of Common Core math is to give students a toolbox of sorts, so when they see a problem, they have multiple ways to solve it. As his lesson continues, students try out yet another division method: using small colorful plastic circles.

In the middle of the room, 8-year-old Destini explains how she and her classmates will solve 16 divided by 4. “And then when we count out the sixteen counters, we’re going to draw the circles around them,” Destini says.

Mississippi Common Core
Destini, a student in Tyler Corbin’s third-grade math class, practices a new division method. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Destini carefully lays out the counters on a clear sheet on her desk. “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen … oops! Sixteen.”

She picks up a dry erase marker and draws a circle around groups of four counters. Then she checks to make sure she has equal groups. At the bottom of her paper, she writes the answer: 16 divided by 4 equals 4.

It seems like a lot of work to solve a division problem. But this kind of lesson emphasizes what principal Cytha Guynes says is another goal of Common Core: digging deeper, or helping kids understand what math is beyond drills and rote memorization. “You can try to teach a trick, and you can try to teach the steps all day long,” says Guynes. “But unless students really understand that division is splitting and multiplication is growing, you know, we’re really not doing for our students what we want to do to prepare them for the critical thinking that’s required at the college level, the collegiate level.”

Mississippi Common Core
Tyler Corbin, a third-grade teacher at Quitman County Elementary, listens to a student explain the answer to a problem. Corbin says the new Common Core standards encourage students to understand math on a deeper level. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

That’s not to say they’ve thrown all the old-fashioned ways out the window. Math teacher Corbin still drills multiplication facts every Friday. But raising the bar is important here in Quitman County, where nearly 30 percent of kids don’t graduate from high school.

Math coach Guyniesha Johnson says that although the new methods could ultimately benefit kids, some students get discouraged. “They’re struggling a little bit, because there are certain strategies that they’ve never seen before, never heard of, their parents have not seen these strategies,” Johnson says. “So they come home with their homework and their parents are like, ‘you do it this way,’ and they’re like ‘no, our teacher taught it to us this way.’”

Related: Huge confusion in Mississippi over Common Core

“For years, they’ve only had to just get the answer. But now they’re having to dive down and actually understand it.” Tyler Corbin, math teacher at Quitman County Elementary.

So far, teachers are saying they’re having success with their stronger students. But the new standards are much harder for the kids who are behind grade level. Math teacher Tyler Corbin says those students need both to catch up and jump to the higher standards at the same time. “Well, for years, they’ve only had to just get the answer,” Corbin says. “But now they’re having to dive down and actually understand it.”

You’d think teachers here would be skeptical about Common Core. A lot of education reforms have come and gone without much improvement. But Corbin and many of his colleagues are optimistic that students will learn more with the new standards.

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  1. I agree that the video linked is probably the best video by anti-Common Core activists, and there is a ton of misinformation in the video that anyone can verify:
    1) The copyright only prevents confusion over what the standards originally say. Indiana & Missouri are both using Common Core to build their own standards, rewording and tweaking as their teams feel appropriate for their states.
    2) Jason Zimba’s comments were taken out of context regarding college readiness. The appendix makes it clear that the standards are meant to be completed by 11th grade so our 11th graders will be ready for non-selective colleges…about a year ahead of where most are now and that still leaves another year for higher levels of math.
    3) Common Core is very similar to Singapore math which has been successfully used for decades by home schoolers interested in more than rote memory of steps. Common Core is a lot more work for teachers than traditional because teachers must find ways to elicit deeper thinking from students.
    4) The presidents of every major mathematical society have signed on in support.
    5) No, I’m not paid to say this but that is impossible to prove. However my claims are easily verifiable by logic. I have worked at two colleges and seen hundreds of dreams crushed by inability for students to be able to pass their college math class and train for jobs waiting for them. I work with high-risk students and see their attitudes turn from hating math to being willing to pursue engineering. The difference is confused, memorized steps vs. making sense of math.
    It is important to realize that the more teachers learn about the actual standards, the more they see the value:
    While I applaud efforts to reign in Federal influence, the math standards are a good solution for a country desperately in need of reform in mathematics instruction. We should be targeting the right enemy. Getting rid of the standards we need will do nothing to influence the way the government behaves.

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