Commentary: Newport-Mesa is making terrific headway with instructional math materials

Math bores many students. Common Core Math, CCM, tries to deliver math differently so that it sticks. CCM succeeds if students become flexibly adept because it hurts seeing students solve y = mx + b, yet unable to answer mx + b = y.

By presenting problems so that students can create their equations, CCM increases their flexibility, but success is elusive.

Teaching CCM reverses much of what was typical during the California Standards Testing, CST, era. We all have expectations of what instructors do, but while newer methods and curricula may be more suitable for most students, they perplex many teachers and parents.

There can be no return to previous methods because our new world of Photomath apps and Mathway has rendered traditional teaching, no matter how efficient, obsolete. It’s simply too easy to cheat in the Internet world, where homework now yields fewer dividends. We must teach hands-on, using methods more common in teaching science.

In the decades before CCM, many attempts to modernize instruction launched. They made no noticeable indent because of the more straightforward CST standards. In 2013, three years after Sacramento adopted CCM, revised versions of conventional materials were somewhat hastily approved. It took several years more for smaller companies like Bridges to gain traction in our state.

In 2012 Newport-Mesa Unified determined that most available published materials didn’t satisfy CCM. Small publishers offered CCM approaches, but they lacked alignment with the progression of standards. NMUSD decided to work through rapid-response local publishers and trainers having rougher materials and focus mainly on new ways of instruction.

Because CCM was not phased in by the state, everyone realized that math would be inescapably messy, similar to switch-hitting for the first time in the middle of a baseball game, and it was. Our Sacramento-driven CCM decade could only have gone badly. If CCM started with its first kindergarten cohort, we’d be deploying smoothly in fifth or sixth grade today.

While Sacramento’s decisions weren’t as thoughtful as we’d like, Newport-Mesa still wrestled with getting beyond mediocrity in its approaches. On the other hand, hazards exist, and mistakes happen. Nobody bats 1.000, especially switch-hitters. Working without textbooks upset everyone more than was anticipated. Older texts combined with the Internet were thought to suffice.

The first irony in teaching with more interaction is mastering direct instruction efficiently to leave time for activities. Secondary teachers incorporated the TESS Math System and elementary teachers, adopted aspects of Swun Math CST. There were similarities between the approaches.

The second irony concerned the reaction to the roughness of the materials. Secondary teachers adopted UC Irvine activity worksheets. They had been in use for about a decade in various Orange County programs. Several Newport-Mesa teachers edited them because of their lack of consistency and obvious errors. Correcting new Swun CCM materials generated far more complaints and publicity, but their issues didn’t surprise. UCI’s errors did.

Designed to pump up CST test scores, Swun 1.0 generated disdain from many teachers. The new superintendent Fred Navarro disagreed. He had witnessed Swun CST assist elementary, multiple-subject teachers in improving the Lennox School District. As a consequence, believing that Si Swun could deliver Swun Common Core (aka Swun 2.0) wasn’t unreasonable.

Yes, it was risky, but frankly, the alternatives weren’t that great. The school board was compelled to support the superintendent and stay the course. If you were a school board member, you would have probably voted to fund Swun Math CCM too.

As professionals, teachers were obligated to employ Swun or UCI with integrity and with any supplements they thought were needed. Most teachers act as “field agents.” The administration provides a general curriculum, and teachers adjust it to their classrooms. Their experience tempers, for better or worse, mandates.

I simply teach secondary math: elementary teachers handle five subjects in a swirl of children. As a group, they require straightforward programs and cannot be expected to be experts on all topics. The simplicity of Swun was a strength.

Newport-Mesa has responded admirably to its first CCM experiences. First, two CCM elementary math programs were evaluated last year: the best 2013 program, “Go Math!” and the highly-rated by EdReports Bridges in Mathematics.

Second, the teachers selected Bridges because it delivers a better learning system than any other American program. However, it requires more daily work by teachers than the easier “Go Math!” text. I love Bridges, but it would have been a hard vote for me: signing up for more work isn’t fun. The teachers deserve accolades.

The administration has responded by complementing the teachers. Many executives are working to support Bridges. For example, they’re allocating money for new elementary math specialists for both Bridges and sixth grade. Considering the grief rendered by determined, activist parents about Swun, it would be easy, even expected, for bureaucrats to go through the motions and benignly watch. The opposite is happening. Our district has an excellent chance of improving the learning of math by our children.

Secondary math is more squirrelly than elementary math. It has different and somewhat conflicting goals in equitably meeting, with 2½ tracks, both graduation requirements and also Advanced Placement. Last year “Go Math!” texts were incorporated to buttress the UCI materials and instructional methods. This year both middle school 6-8 and high school 9-11 will evaluate new materials with the goal of building upon the best aspects of CCM and AP/IB.

The 2017-18 school year promises calmer and better-developed math programs and pilots. Many issues divide us; let it not be school math for awhile. There are wounds; let them heal.

DENNIS ASHENDORF, a teacher, lives in Costa Mesa.