Photo courtesy of Phil Halperin, California Education Partners
Haley Marquez, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger Unified, and Karl Kesterke, an area administrator for Sanger Unified, join the discussion during one of the periodic meetings of the 10 districts in the Math in Common collaborative.

For five years, a San Francisco foundation funded, and a research organization closely monitored, a collaboration by 10 California districts to raise achievement under the Common Core math standards. With math proficiency lagging behind English language arts performance on the new academic standards, the project took on one of the biggest impediments to student success and challenges facing California schools.

The findings, laid out in six lengthy studies, are both sobering and encouraging.

Progress was slow and uneven, and average increases in standardized test scores, which have been largely stagnant statewide, were small, with considerable variation among districts and schools. There was an upward trend in 3rd through 6th grades toward the end of the initiative in 2018. And there was some progress among English learners in those districts, compared with English learners statewide, but no closing of the gap between English learners and other students. There was no increase in middle school scores.

Yet the findings of the reports also offer insights from trial and error and a general consensus, developed over time, on promising strategies and instructional choices to raise the odds of improvement in math.

The overall watchword is patience, said Neal Finkelstein, co-director of the Innovation Studies program at WestEd, the San Francisco-based nonprofit research and policy organization that evaluated and provided technical help for the districts. Math in Common, as the K-8 program was called, produced “not a crazy miracle” but noticeable gain in the latter years, he said. Meaningful improvement in Common Core math will require “long, enduring, grinding progress” that touches “every teacher, every day,” he said. “There is not a shortcut to it.”

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation funded Math in Common. The 10 districts were chosen, out of 27 invited to apply, because they had shown some success in raising achievement with some capability and systems to implement the then-new math standards. The unified districts, with an average of 72 percent low-income students, were Dinuba, Elk Grove, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Oakland, Oceanside, Sacramento City, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana.

Bechtel spent more than $50 million on the program. Bechtel paid for periodic meetings of the districtwide teams, additional math specialists, in-school and in-district trainings and the collaboration time of math teachers since 2013. That was when districts were beginning to turn their attention to the significant shifts in instruction and concepts demanded by Common Core math. California Education Partners of San Francisco, which directs education networks throughout the state, oversaw the initiative. Districts received grants ranging from $2.5 million for small districts like Sanger and Dinuba to $7 million for Long Beach over 5 years.

“There was no model for implementing Common Core” when the initiative started, and the foundation was “agnostic” about approaches, said Arron Jiron, Bechtel’s associate program director for education. “We wanted to shine a light on what worked. We wanted districts to figure out how to do it within their own visions and capture what they learned, mistakes and all.”

The 5-year effort did not shake the foundation’s or the districts’ faith in the Common Core standards. But there were — and still are — what WestEd called “roadblocks” to effective implementation. There was a shortage of good materials and textbooks on Common Core math, leading teachers to spend immense time creating their own lesson plans. There weren’t teachers in every school with the expertise to improve instruction and districts couldn’t find subs or schedule release time for collaboration. Based on their experiences, some teachers were skeptical of dedicating time to “continuous improvement.”

But over time, districts came up with “routes” around roadblocks. They refined strategies and came to realizations — WestEd calls them “inflection points” — that guided their work and hold promise for other districts and providers of assistance, primarily county offices of education.

Among those:

Pursue district collaborations; they can make a difference. Districts, like teachers, “can learn more quickly and effectively together than by working in isolation,” the studies concluded. The reports pointed to practices and ideas that districts shared, like Dinuba Unified’s adoption of Garden Gove’s “math huddles” — monthly meetings of all elementary schools’ head math teachers. District teams should include math experts and administrators committed to the effort with the power to make decisions. Collaborations also need time to build trust to encourage candor about successes and failures.

Narrow the focus to a specific area of instruction. That might appear obvious, but it often isn’t. Districts tried to tackle too many math standards at once and the district teams should have shifted their focus sooner from “vision statements” to improvements in instruction. “District staff should not try to tackle every facet — or even most facets — of systems change all at once,” WestEd wrote.

Make mastery of “academic discourse” a district priority. Academic discourse refers to the ability of students to show orally and in writing that they understand what they have learned, by explaining the logic behind their own answers and critiquing the reasoning of others. One of eight fundamental practices of Common Core math, along with the abilities to reason abstractly and apply math logic outside the classroom, the Math in Common districts eventually chose it as their focus.

Academic discourse presents perhaps the biggest Common Core challenge, since it requires that teachers move “away from memorization, drills and rote procedures” toward a “deeper conceptual understanding” of math, Rebecca Perry, senior program associate at WestEd, wrote. It also “ups the ante” for what districts need to do to successfully and equitably implement the standards, particularly with English learners.

Concentrate professional development at the school level. Common Core demands that teachers teach differently, moving from lectures to encouraging student problem-solving. These are new skills best developed through teachers working together in school-based work groups centered on lesson planning, not district-led trainings. These efforts require release time for teachers to meet and a math coach or, if there are not enough coaches to go around, a lead school math teacher. Districts that relied on the strategy of having teachers train other teachers reported poor participation if teachers lack confidence in lead teachers’ expertise. San Francisco created podcasts for tips on lesson plans.

Observe teachers in their classrooms. “We have data on student outcomes, but we still know little about what teachers do in the classroom that influences those outcomes,” WestEd wrote. Direct observation is critical to helping teachers improve. But the factors for learning are hard to analyze and measure. Garden Grove has revised its tool for measuring lesson effectiveness a dozen times. After analyzing 201 lessons in 141 classrooms in nine of the 10 districts in the project, WestEd staff found little improvement in instruction over three years but concluded the rubric it used may have been too complex. Although gathering observation data was difficult and time-intensive, most participating districts felt it should it be “a firm priority“ to understand implementation success, WestEd wrote.

Develop principals’ instructional leadership. Shifting professional development from the district office to schools magnifies the importance of principals’ role as instructional leaders and advocates for math instruction and resources. Principals ideally should participate in classroom observations and teacher trainings. Those who have not been in the classroom for years or have not taught math find these roles difficult. In some districts participating in the initiative, math coaches tutored principals and created separate learning groups for them.

What’s next?

WestEd concluded that Math in Common has provided “many valuable lessons” on how to implement the standards, but Jiron, of Bechtel, and others acknowledge it’s not clear where other school districts will find funding to hire more math specialists in the elementary grades and the expertise to help them shift instructional practices.

Six years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appropriated $1.25 billion for districts to implement the Common Core, with a choice of spending the money on training, materials or technology; districts spent the most on technology. Since then the state has dedicated no one-time money or ongoing funding for professional development, leaving it up to districts, under local control, to decide whether to spend anything on standards implementation.

The 2019-20 state budget does provide $14 million in federal funding to create a 21st Century California School Leadership Academy for principals and administrators, with coaching in academic standards one of the stated purposes. And the Bechtel Foundation is funding work with the organization that serves the county offices of education — the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association — on how to help districts adopt Math in Common findings.

But otherwise, WestEd’s Finkelstein and former State Board of Education President Michael Kirst agreed that districts will have to find money from within their own budgets. They’ll have to ask themselves, “Are there ways to rearrange what you are doing?” said Kirst, who has called the lack of teacher and administrator training a critical unmet need of Common Core adoption.

As for the Math in Common districts, the project ended in 2018, but the foundation agreed to continue some support for two years for eight of the 10 districts. Garden Grove and Long Beach, which were already ahead of the others in implementing the standards and made the biggest gains in test scores, ended their affiliation. But the foundation itself is winding down and going out of business at the end of 2020, leaving districts to replace the funding — if they choose.

WestEd suggested the districts were still only beginning to figure out what they needed to improve classroom instruction. “It is not yet clear whether the initiative’s work has built the kind of capacity and innovation, in the participating districts, that will ultimately result in more promising (test) results down the line,” it wrote.

EdSource receives support from a dozen philanthropic foundations, including the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Editorial decision-making and content remain under the sole control of EdSource.

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  1. navigio 1 month ago1 month ago

    What does neuroscience tell us about the developmental appropriateness of academic discourse? Or grade-level sequestering, for that matter?

  2. Jennifer Pemberton 1 month ago1 month ago

    The bottom line is this. Most teachers disagree with Common Core standards. Many are beginning to question the original writers intentions and credibility. If you read the study “How High The Bar” one can make a strong case that the standards are not valid. The claim that the standards are internationally benchmarked was false. The case and the narrative which got us here is rapidly crumbling away.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago

      Thanks for pointing to the study,Jennifer. I have provided a link to it. Having read the executive summary, I question your conclusion. The study is critical of level of scores required to be deemed proficient on the Smarter Balanced assessment and the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. The study criticizes the scoring as unrealistic.

      This study doesn’t fault the Common Core standards themselves.

  3. Jim Mordecai 1 month ago1 month ago

    A criticism of Common Core is that it was imposed by states without being beta tested. The support provided to "Math in Common" school districts demonstrated that without additional support teachers are not qualified to implement Common Core. And, that the state is not supplying textbooks that supply implementation of the Common Core is also disturbing part of this report. If districts don't have the capacity to implement Common Core, should they … Read More

    A criticism of Common Core is that it was imposed by states without being beta tested. The support provided to “Math in Common” school districts demonstrated that without additional support teachers are not qualified to implement Common Core. And, that the state is not supplying textbooks that supply implementation of the Common Core is also disturbing part of this report. If districts don’t have the capacity to implement Common Core, should they just fake it and let teachers teach as they had in the past?

  4. James Hare 1 month ago1 month ago

    Here is what the performance of the lowest performing 3rd Grade Cohort looks like when a new approach combining a solution to Benjamin Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem and mastery learning: https://drive.google.com/file/d/170FeB12QBq8xl4xnZ8uTbjC_Dt6Ezr7U/view?usp=sharing Model models show Oceanside 3rd graders growing at .25-2.0 standard deviations per school year. This growth is possible using the 2 Sigma system. 2 Sigma System for Initiating Growth in Low Performing Schools The 2 Sigma Research Group in Michigan developed a system that moves the lowest … Read More

    Here is what the performance of the lowest performing 3rd Grade Cohort looks like when a new approach combining a solution to Benjamin Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem and mastery learning:
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/170FeB12QBq8xl4xnZ8uTbjC_Dt6Ezr7U/view?usp=sharing
    Model models show Oceanside 3rd graders growing at .25-2.0 standard deviations per school year.

    This growth is possible using the 2 Sigma system.
    2 Sigma System for Initiating Growth in Low Performing Schools

    The 2 Sigma Research Group in Michigan developed a system that moves the lowest performing schools to the state median within 3 years.

    The system is based on provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that leverage public-private partnerships with (Pay for Success).
      
    The 2 Sigma system produces large effect size outcomes that close the poverty gap. 2 Sigma is based on over 20 years of research using the scientific method. The 2 sigma system brings into practical reality Dr. Benjamin Bloom’s 1980’s discovery that combining mastery-based learning with 1:1 tutoring produces growth of 2 standard deviations. High performing schools produce annual growth of .25 standard deviations. Our research team is the first to replicate Dr. Bloom’s results in multiple studies.

    1. Detroit
    2. Cleveland
    3. Chicago
    4. Compton
    5. Saint Louis
    6. Washington, D.C.
    7. Mississippi Delta
    8. Rural South Carolina
    9. Rural Michigan (Cassopolis)
    10. Michigan’s upper peninsula (Curtis)
    11. Puerto Rico
    12. Highland Park
    13. River Rouge
    The system is designed to use the new ESSA provisions that encourage “Pay for Success” (PFS). The PFS policy option is designed for Title 1 schools. At growth of zero to .25 standard deviations their is no charge for the system. School districts pay for the services beginning a median growth of .5 standard deviations. (See Models):
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/170FeB12QBq8xl4xnZ8uTbjC_Dt6Ezr7U/view?usp=sharing

    We are now preparing for state level scale up trials. The WestED Math project is an ideal pilot group because of the extensived work already done to document conventional approaches to growing student Achievement. In the model we show the WestED math cohort contrasted with one of California highest performing schools La Jolla elementary in San Diego. We apply 2 Sigma growth rates to Oceanside.
    At .25 Sigma Oceanside moves to the state median in two school years and is competitive with La Jolla within 8 years.
    https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/MPxVf/8/
    At .5 Sigma Oceanside moves to the state median in one school year and is competitive with La Jolla within 4 years.
    https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/KFSVw/3/
    At 1 Sigma Oceanside moves to the state median in one school year and is competitive with La Jolla within 2 years.
    https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/JFxIy/4/
    At 2 Sigma Oceanside is competitive with La Jolla in one school year
    https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/o37yG/3/
    The WestEd Math Cohort is an ideal pilot group for 2 Sigma. Please contact the 2 Sigma Research Group at 716-795-2576 and by email James@qwk2lrn.com for information on 2 Sigma or PFS in California or other states.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/170FeB12QBq8xl4xnZ8uTbjC_Dt6Ezr7U/view?usp=sharing

  5. Annette 1 month ago1 month ago

    I've been reading conflicting reports on Common Core methodology vs traditional math teaching. In addition I have been teaching a number of years. Based on younger students' brain development, why are we taking away the basic building blocks of math? It is critical to have basic understandings of basic operations. I find the shift away from this confusing to parents, teachers, but mostly to students. Please explain why this is better based on recent studies … Read More

    I’ve been reading conflicting reports on Common Core methodology vs traditional math teaching. In addition I have been teaching a number of years. Based on younger students’ brain development, why are we taking away the basic building blocks of math? It is critical to have basic understandings of basic operations. I find the shift away from this confusing to parents, teachers, but mostly to students.

    Please explain why this is better based on recent studies showing stagnation and poorer outcomes.

  6. Jim Hovater 1 month ago1 month ago

    Why would anyone choose to pursue Common Core; especially the math aspect of it? When students are offered a choice between CC Math and traditional problem-solving, they invariably choose the traditional method.

  7. Wayne Bishop 1 month ago1 month ago

    “We wanted to shine a light on what worked. We wanted districts to figure out how to do it within their own visions and capture what they learned, mistakes and all.” These two statements are diametrically opposed. Schools that care about strong student performance in mathematics teach mathematics, directly, incrementally, and coherently. Good private schools and good charter schools know that and do that. The Common Core philosophy for mathematics education - including … Read More

    “We wanted to shine a light on what worked. We wanted districts to figure out how to do it within their own visions and capture what they learned, mistakes and all.”

    These two statements are diametrically opposed. Schools that care about strong student performance in mathematics teach mathematics, directly, incrementally, and coherently. Good private schools and good charter schools know that and do that. The Common Core philosophy for mathematics education – including ill-posed problems – is almost completely wrong.

  8. Myra Deister 1 month ago1 month ago

    Are the techniques to improve discourse available for math teachers who are not employed in the pilot districts?

  9. Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

    Just another giant waste of money trying to justify the switch to 'Common Core'. Clearly the result was there has really been no improvement. But no worries. WestEd got their piece of the pie. My experience with WestEd on the level of district/school support is dismal. They have plenty of lingo, and they are politically correct, and they love to talk (more like preaching really) but the methods they push are unproven and … Read More

    Just another giant waste of money trying to justify the switch to ‘Common Core’. Clearly the result was there has really been no improvement. But no worries. WestEd got their piece of the pie. My experience with WestEd on the level of district/school support is dismal. They have plenty of lingo, and they are politically correct, and they love to talk (more like preaching really) but the methods they push are unproven and without evidence and the results show just that.