A team of teachers and the principal of Piney Branch Elementary School hovered over two math questions designed to test fourth-grade students on their understanding of perimeter.
One question came from the current Maryland standardized exam, asking students to select the right answer from choices A, B, C or D. The other came from the new test students will take starting in 2014. It had no multiple-choice options, and students have to explain their answers “using numbers, symbols and words.”
“How are we going to teach them to learn and think this way?” teacher Veronica Munoz asked.
It’s a question Montgomery County Public Schools hopes to answer with hours of summer training sessions similar to the one Munoz attended last month.
With the academic year finished, the work for 1,250 elementary teachers will continue as they prepare to teach a new, more rigorous mathematics curriculum that will roll out to more than 22,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students in August.
While the material, aligned to national education standards under Common Core State Standards, is expected to be more challenging for students, it also will test teachers. Educators must teach math in a way that is strikingly different from how they, and their students’ parents, learned it.
“We sort of have to forget the way we learned things, which is how we were taught,” said Matt Wells, a staff development teacher at Georgian Forest Elementary School. “It’s uncomfortable.”
Math has been a subject of great concern in Montgomery. At the high school level, recently released data showed that a majority of students have been failing their final exams in math. At the elementary level, some students have complained that they are bored in math class under Curriculum 2.0, Montgomery’s program designed to meet the new national standards. Curriculum 2.0 has already been implemented in kindergarten through third grade.
Wells has been working with teachers at Georgian Forest to introduce the new material, which focuses less on rote learning and memorization and more on understanding the mechanics behind answers to problems. Although Wells and the teachers at Piney Branch were confident they would be getting a good amount of training to meet increased expectations, not all teachers are getting the same support.
Nationally, less than one-third of the teachers surveyed said they’ve received professional support or training, according to an American Federation of Teachers poll. And about two in three Maryland teachers say they’re not ready to teach students on Common Core standards, according to a non-scientific Maryland State Education Association survey.
More than 7,000 Maryland teachers and administrators will attend Educator Effectiveness Academies this summer, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. The academies are in their third year and focus on implementing Common Core.
Rowena Shurn, an elementary school resource teacher in Prince George’s County, has been attending the academies. Although her school has offered additional training and support, she said teachers are anxious about whether they’re adequately prepared for Common Core, particularly when it comes to math.
“It’s not what I learned back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Shurn said.
Students are learning more in small groups. And instead of teaching the Pythagorean theorem, teachers are encouraged to facilitate instruction so students figure out what methods get to the right answer.
Teachers across the country are jumping at opportunities to get more training on the new standards, said Linda M. Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The council’s two-day training sessions on Common Core have been selling out, which she said is unusual.
Math training is particularly important at the elementary level because that’s where students need to build a solid foundation, Gojak said. But most elementary teachers instruct students on as many as five subjects a day.
“Elementary students ought to be taught by teachers who really understand the mathematics. . . . But it is very hard for them to get a specialization in mathematics,” Gojak said.
The work also becomes more challenging as teachers are expected to teach students of all abilities in a single classroom. Training will need to help teachers instruct brighter students with more challenging material, while also meeting the needs of all students.
Emily Tai, the mother of an elementary student learning under Curriculum 2.0, worries that some teachers might not have the experience to make sure advanced students are challenged, while some students might not get the full attention they need, “diluting” a teacher’s efforts.
“If the teacher is experienced and is devoted and has a lot of training, then this curriculum is good,” Tai said. “However, some kinds of teachers don’t have that, and it’s very difficult.”
Munoz said she and other teachers have their work cut out for them over the summer.
“It’s going to be really hard for us as teachers,” Munoz said. “But it’s going to be really good for the kids.”