Potential exists for ‘much richer and in-depth math experience’

March 12, 2015

Timothy Smith with students

EdSource is conducting a series of interviews featuring educators’ experiences with the Common Core State Standards. Elk Grove Unified is one of six districts that EdSource is following during implementation of the new standards. For more information about the Common Core, check out our guide.

Math teacher Timothy Smith earned a 2014 California Teacher of the Year award and was chosen by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to be the state’s nominee for the National Teacher of the Year award.

Smith has been teaching high school algebra and advanced placement statistics since 2001 at Florin High School in Sacramento, which is part of the Elk Grove Unified School District. Florin High, a school in which the entire student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, was among four schools recognized nationally by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the achievement gap.

Smith came to teaching by accident. A former supermarket meat cutter with a community college degree, Smith eventually worked as a purchasing manager for a Fortune 500 company. He soon discovered that his lack of a bachelor’s degree kept him from earning promotions. He returned to college to obtain a bachelor’s degree and was interested in going into teaching. But his decision was cemented with an unexpected opportunity: he was asked to fill in for his former 4th-grade teacher in Greenville, Florida, for two weeks while she was on medical leave.

“I loved teaching the kids about new things and seeing them get excited about learning,” he said. “It was rewarding and fascinating.” At the end of that two-week stint, he said, “One little girl came up to me and asked if I could be her teacher for the rest of the year, and that just broke my heart right there.”

In his current job, he said among his greatest satisfactions is being able to inspire in his students not just a love for math but for learning. He said he’s always gratified when former students tell him their careers are tied to what he taught them in class. While Smith is pleased to hear that, it also reinforces his sense of responsibility. “One misstep, one thing you say can inspire or deflate their ability to learn and change their life,” he said.

What has been the greatest challenge for you in switching to Common Core math?

The greatest challenge for me and my department has been the delay in adopting a new curriculum. Our district was wise in waiting for more publishers to get material out to the schools, but the math teachers were all itching to get an idea of what our new curriculum would be. Some of the early Common Core material was very skill-based, much like our current material, while other Common Core material teetered on the other end of the spectrum, nearly all application- and task-based questions. We created quite a bit of material ourselves based on the new standards, but were unable to design curriculum maps or year plans until our district decided on the Integrated Pathway.

The teachers in my department and I chose to focus on the Standards for Mathematical Practice, honing our questioning skills and working our way from in front of the classroom to more of a facilitator role. Our students were not used to the tenacity and precision that the new standards demanded, but we have seen significant improvement in their ability to be self-directed learners.

What forms of support do you need to successfully teach the new standards?

Professional development has to be an integral part of Common Core. Professional learning communities will play a huge role in helping teachers understand the new standards and develop new curriculum.

Administrators need to understand that Common Core is not about changing every teaching practice. At many schools we see a push to increase the depth of knowledge of our questions.  While important, this is not Common Core. Our questioning strategies will change, but teachers do not need to be formally evaluated on this during the transition.

What do you like about the Common Core?

Oh, there is plenty that I like about the new standards. Since I teach Advanced Placement Statistics, I have long been a fan of contextually based problem solving. I also teach Algebra 1 and Geometry, and I appreciate the efforts to add relevancy to those subject areas. The ability to delve deeper into concepts, rather than covering as many concepts as possible, is exciting. Students remember the projects and activities in a class. Allowing a few days for students to perform a task-based activity will promote those critical-thinking skills that our students so desperately need.

What do you dislike about the Common Core?

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the way the new standards were presented to the public could have been better. Many parents, particularly at the elementary level, are still unfamiliar with the different methods that are being used to teach their children. Some of my colleagues at the elementary level are creating videos for parents explaining how math is being taught.

I am also concerned about the online testing. Teaching at a high-poverty school, we were some of the last to get the technology upgrades needed to test our students. We also did not pilot the test, so we are doing our best now to prepare our juniors for the spring testing sessions. Many of our students do not have computers at home, and studies have shown that they will face additional cognitive pressure when taking the online exam. I believe this will have a negative impact on their performance.

Do you think that Common Core standards are an improvement from California’s previous math standards?

Absolutely. The Common Core standards will allow our students to experience math, not just solve problems. The standards encourage teachers to seek out ways to make math relevant and to meld the subject areas together. I am really excited to see transformations and statistics in Algebra. Many students that come to our school from other countries have had a much richer and in-depth math experience. It’s time for the students in California to have the same experience.


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