On Wednesday morning, math time in Brianne McDaniel’s class began in a familiar way — with students sitting cross-legged on a bumblebee carpet, counting backward and forward on a number chart projected above them.
Throughout the year, the children will be spending a lot more time with the chart. They will write about numbers, play with numbers and get to know numbers well enough to understand what they are made of and how they relate to one another.
Eventually, this will lead to addition and subtraction, and even a little bit of algebra. But there’s no rush. “Numbers are the root of mathematics,” McDaniel said. “This is something we are going to be focusing on all year.”
The approach is a major shift. In the past, teachers were “panicking,” she said, to get through all the concepts they were expected to teach, including early lessons in geometry, measurement and statistics.
By paring down the curriculum, U.S. schools are taking their cue from the less-is-more approach in such high-performing countries as Finland and South Korea.
“This is not an evolution in standards. This is like a revolution,” said William Schmidt, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.
“It really calls for a different approach to teaching,” he said, requiring teachers to have a deeper understanding of the material.
Traditionally, what students are expected to know by the time they graduate has been decided by state and local school leaders. But last year, governors and state education chiefs proposed common standards to align with the expectations of employers and colleges. Forty-five states and the District have adopted them.
In comparison with previous standards, which varied widely from state to state, the new set focuses more on core math concepts and puts more emphasis on writing and nonfiction.
In the first week of English language arts in McDaniel’s class, first-graders read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Two Bad Ants” and learned about punctuation and making predictions in stories.
McDaniel plans to introduce a new kind of book next week, one that explores a different topic on each page. Her goal is to introduce the idea that some books provide information rather than tell a story.
Last year, she said, she taught nonfiction lessons only twice. The new curriculum calls for a far greater emphasis on nonfiction and more technical reading — both in elementary and secondary school.