Interview with a middle school math teacher on the Common Core

[Cross-posted from mathbabe.org, Cathy O’Neil’s blog.]

Today’s post is an email interview with Fawn Nguyen, who teaches math at Mesa Union Junior High in southern California. Fawn is on the leadership team for UCSB Mathematics Project that provides professional development for teachers in the Tri-County area. She is a co-founder of the Thousand Oaks Math Teachers’ Circle. In an effort to share and learn from other math teachers, Fawn blogs at Finding Ways to Nguyen Students Over. She also started VisualPatterns.org to help students develop algebraic thinking, and more recently, she shares her students’ daily math talks to promote number sense. When Fawn is not teaching or writing, she is reading posts on mathblogging.org as one of the editors. She sleeps occasionally and dreams of becoming an architect when all this is done.

Importantly for the below interview, Fawn is not being measured via a value-added model. My questions are italicized.


I’ve been studying the rhetoric around the mathematics Common Core State Standard (CCSS). So far I’ve listened to Diane Ravitch stuff, I’ve interviewed Bill McCallum, the lead writer of the math CCSS, and I’ve also interviewed Kiri Soares, a New York City high school principal. They have very different views. Interestingly, McCallum distinguished three things: standards, curriculum, and testing.

What do you think? Do teachers see those as three different things? Or is it a package deal, where all three things rolled into one in terms of how they’re presented?

I can’t speak for other teachers. I understand that the standards are not meant to be the curriculum, but the two are not mutually exclusive either. They can’t be. Standards inform the curriculum. This might be a terrible analogy, but I love food and cooking, so maybe the standards are the major ingredients, and the curriculum is the entrée that contains those ingredients. In the show Chopped on Food Network, the competing chefs must use all 4 ingredients to make a dish – and the prepared foods that end up on the plates differ widely in taste and presentation. We can’t blame the ingredients when the dish is blandly prepared any more than we can blame the standards when the curriculum is poorly written.

Similarly, the standards inform testing. Test items for a certain grade level cover the standards of that grade level. I’m not against testing. I’m against bad tests and a lot of it. By bad, I mean multiple-choice items that require more memorization than actual problem solving. But I’m confident we can create good multiple-choice tests because realistically a portion of the test needs to be of this type due to costs.

The three – standards, curriculum, and testing – are not a “package deal” in the sense that the same people are not delivering them to us. But they go together, otherwise what is school mathematics? Funny thing is we have always had the three operating in schools, but somehow the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seem to get the all the blame for the anxieties and costs connected to testing and curriculum development.

As a teacher, what’s good and bad about the CCSS?

I see a lot of good in the CCSS. This set of standards is not perfect, but it’s much better than our state standards. We can examine the standards and see for ourselves that the integrity of the standards holds up to their claims of being embedded with mathematical focus, rigor, and coherence.

Implementation of CCSS means that students and teachers can expect consistency in what is being taught at each grade level across state boundaries. This is a nontrivial effort in addressing equity. This consistency also helps teachers collaborate nationwide, and professional development for teachers will improve and be more relevant and effective.

I can only hope that textbooks will be much better because of the inherent focus and coherence in CCSS. A kid can move from Maine to California and not have to see different state outlines on their textbooks as if he’d taken on a new kind of mathematics in his new school. I went to a textbook publishers fair recently at our district, and I remain optimistic that better products are already on their way.

We had every state create its own assessment, now we have two consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced. I’ve gone through the sample assessments from the latter, and they are far better than the old multiple-choice items of the CST. Kids will have to process the question at a deeper level to show understanding. This is a good thing.

What is potentially bad about the CCSS is the improper or lack of implementation. So, this boils down to the most important element of the Common Core equation – the teacher. There is no doubt that many teachers, myself included, need sustained professional development to do the job right. And I don’t mean just PD in making math more relevant and engaging, and in how many ways we can use technology, I mean more importantly, we need PD in content knowledge.

It is a perverse notion to think that anyone with a college education can teach elementary mathematics. Teaching mathematics requires knowing mathematics. To know a concept is to understand it backward and forward, inside and outside, to recognize it in different forms and structures, to put it into context, to ask questions about it that leads to more questions, to know the mathematics beyond this concept. That reminds me just recently a 6th grader said to me as we were working on our unit of dividing by a fraction. She said, “My elementary teacher lied to me! She said we always get a smaller number when we divide two numbers.”

Just because one can make tuna casserole does not make one a chef. (Sorry, I’m hungry.)

What are the good and bad things for kids about testing?

Testing is only good for kids when it helps them learn and become more successful – that the feedback from testing should inform the teacher of next moves. Testing has become such a dirty word because we over test our kids. I’m still in the classroom after 23 years, yet I don’t have the answers. I struggle with telling my kids that I value them and their learning, yet at the end of each quarter, the narrative sum of their learning is a letter grade.

Then, in the absence of helping kids learn, testing is bad.

What are the good/bad things for the teachers with all these tests?

Ideally, a good test that measures what it’s supposed to measure should help the teacher and his students. Testing must be done in moderation. Do we really need to test kids at the start of the school year? Don’t we have the results from a few months ago, right before they left for summer vacation? Every test takes time away from learning.

I’m not sure I understand why testing is bad for teachers aside from lost instructional minutes. Again, I can’t speak for other teachers. But I do sense heightened anxiety among some teachers because CCSS is new – and newness causes us to squirm in our seats and doubt our abilities. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. I see it as an opportunity to learn content at a deeper conceptual level and to implement better teaching strategies.

If we look at anything long and hard enough, we are bound to find the good and the bad. I choose to focus on the positives because I can’t make the day any longer and I can’t have fewer than 4 hours of sleep a night. I want to spend my energies working with my administrators, my colleagues, my parents to bring the best I can bring into my classroom.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The best things about CCSS for me are not even the standards – they are the 8 Mathematical Practices. These are life-long habits that will serve students well, in all disciplines. They’re equivalent to the essential cooking techniques, like making roux and roasting garlic and braising kale and shucking oysters. Okay, maybe not that last one, but I just got back from New Orleans, and raw oysters are awesome.

I’m excited to continue to share and collaborate with my colleagues locally and online because we now have a common language! We teachers do this very hard work – day in and day out, late into the nights and into the weekends – because we love our kids and we love teaching. But we need to be mathematically competent first and foremost to teach mathematics. I want the focus to always be about the kids and their learning. We start with them; we end with them.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 25, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I still love this.

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