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Does Common Core add up?

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When it comes to the Common Core debate, parents in the Mountain State are beginning to speak up.

While the Common Core standards were officially adopted in 2010, parents are just now beginning to see first-hand how the Next Generation Standards, or NextGen, are playing out in their children’s classrooms.

According to Josie Rabatin, the mother of a just-graduated 10th-grader at Parkersburg South High School, the transition to Common Core standards has not helped, but rather hurt her son, especially when it comes to math.

Rabatin said this was the first year she became aware of Parkersburg South’s introduction to the Common Core curriculum. Last fall, when Common Core math was brought aboard, Rabatin said the issues began — issues she, her son and her family had never had before.

Group Think Concept

One of the issues Rabatin said she and her family encountered was what happened once her son’s math class was broken into small groups.

“The teacher’s goal was to break them into small groups, and each group was to come up with an answer,” she said. “The group itself, all they worried about was arriving at an answer. They didn’t care who got it, they just wanted to get an answer.

“In (our son’s) particular group, they relied on him to answer it because he seemed to be the leader.”

The group think concept — discuss something and come up with an answer — that Rabatin said appears to be a key concept of what Common Core is about doesn’t realistically play out that way in the actual classroom.

“There was no discussing. It was, ‘you’re the smart one — you come up with it,” she said. “That gives us our answer. We’ve met (the teacher’s) obligation of coming up with an answer.”

Laura Kimble, the mother of three Mountain State children, one a 2014 graduate and two students currently enrolled in the Harrison County school system, said she has experienced issues with the Common Core math implementation. Kimble explained that one of her concerns is that West Virginia students will no longer be competitive with students from other states for national scholarships or admissions to out-of-state collegiate institutions.

Her concern was brought into sharp focus after visiting several colleges and universities in a neighboring state during the spring of 2013. Kimble said when she asked one of the admissions counselors about the impact of Common Core math on future admissions, specifically Math 1, 2 and 3, she was met with a blank stare.

“When I asked about Math 1, Math 2 and Math 3, the admissions counselor gave me a perplexed look,” she said. “(The admissions counselor) said, ‘We really don’t care about any of the lower levels of classes that a student would take. We want to see higher math classes on a transcript.

“We want to see how students challenge himself or herself. We want to see AP stats, AP physics, trig and calculus.’”

Integrated Method

Kimble also said one of her biggest frustrations has been the abandonment of the Traditional Pathway in lieu of the Integrated Pathway at the Secondary Level, which she explained leads to the issue she faced when talking to admissions counselors.

The Integrated Pathway — chosen by the State Board to fulfill the Common Core content, standards and objectives (CSOs) — is different from the Traditional Pathway.

In the Traditional Pathway, math-specific subjects — algebra I, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus — are taught in their entirety before tackling the next math-specific subject. Kimble emphasized that the Common Core CSOs can be achieved by either the Traditional Pathway or the Integrated Pathway. She also is quick to point out that there is a consensus of educators who believe that with the Traditional Pathway, some students are ready for algebra I by seventh grade, thus allowing them to further their academic careers with higher-level math or science courses at earlier stages in their secondary education. With the Integrated Pathway, students are taught portions of the math-specific subjects under Math 1,2, 3 and Math 3 STEM. The mathmatical concepts may relate to one another, but apply to different math subjects.

The Common Core conceptual approach to math has become known as “fuzzy math” among frustrated parents and has sparked a number of viral blog posts and uploads to Facebook from those parents, describing the math problems given as homework assignments as unnecessarily complicated.

In one such example, pupils are asked: “Use number bonds to help you skip-count by seven by making 10 or adding to the ones, e.g., 7 + 7 = 10 + 4 = ?”

Pre-Common Core, that question might have been: “7 + 7 = ?”

Another problem asks students to answer “2 + 3 = ?” and then “write the double fact that helped you solve the double plus 1.”

For Rabatin, the approach leaves much to be desired in terms of actual learning.

“(The curriculum) was just jumping around all over the place,” Rabatin said. “They learn a little bit of algebra — one concept of that and one concept of geometry. There was no cohesion … and different types of problems that didn’t relate to each other.”

While Rabatin said she understands the idea behind showing how one concept relates to the other, it only led to more frustration.

“You don’t learn just algebra, just trig and then just something else,” she said. “It’s just so frustrating … jumping around all over the place and not learning anything.”

Adding to parents’ frustration is the lack of mathematical textbooks that enables them to assist their children when questions do arise.

According to Rabatin, her son had only a Common Core math workbook for a classroom text.

Kimble said she was “astounded” her county voted for implemention before there were textbooks available.

“During the first year of Math 1, our teachers were given the CSOs and told to create the curriculum by using a variety of sources, including several online resources. They made thousands of copies. Students were sent home with homework and no textbooks. Parents were told to visit websites for help.

“After learning that there were textbooks available from several companies, I found myself going to a school board meeting and asking for books for our students. Considering that Harrison County voters have supported a levy for this key educational tool, I didn’t think that my request was unreasonable.”

Math Subject Options

High-achieving students who may have taken algebra I in seventh or eighth grade are no longer able to participate in higher math (and science) at the previous stage that they would have with the Traditional Pathway. This is the cause of the weaker transcript, Kimble said.

At Parkersburg South, the current math classes are being stripped away to implement Common Core, with classes being phased out a little along the way.

This past school year, Common Core hit the sophomore classes. Next year, it will extend to junior classes.

In order to try to stay ahead of Common Core, the Rabatins took a proactive approach to dodge Common Core classes.

“We were able to get (our son) in higher math in (the spring) semester,” Rabatin said. “We didn’t want him waiting around for the next Common Core class so we put him in algebra II.

“We’re hoping for trigonometry next year to escape Common Core.”

School Perspective

When it comes to classroom environments, Pamela Mullens, director/manager of instruction at the Clay County Board of Education, said different schools are in different phases of Common Core implementation, particularly at the elementary level.

“One (Clay County) school is taking baby steps,” she said. “One is mid-way. The implementation has been difficult.”

What a Common Core classroom environment looks like largely depends on the teacher, she said.

“Teachers are all different,” she said.

Some teachers still operate under the more traditional structure of desks aligned in rows and teaching in lecture style, Mullens said. Others have embraced the newer, collaborative style environment that has been characterized as “looking like a 21st century classroom.”

As a whole, Mullens said the overarching question about where schools are at in the implementation stage is broad.

When it comes to classroom environment and delivery, Robert Hull, associate state superintendent of West Virginia Department of Education, said it is up to the teacher to design the learning environment and how instruction is structured.

The added expectation that emphasizes mathematical reasoning is “a legitimate concern if not taught properly,” Hull said.

In terms of math subjects and a fear of being less academically competitive, Hull said that Math 1 consists of a combination of algebra 1, algebra II and geometry. During Math 2 and Math 3, Hull said students may be exposed to some trigonometry and some calculus. By Math 3, Hull said students should reach the “College and Career ready benchmark” and in Math 4, mathematical instruction is tailored to a student’s career field.

While some voice the opinion that some students have the academic capability to take algebra 1 in seventh grade rather than waiting for eighth grade, and worry Advanced Placement courses may drop by the wayside, Hull maintains that the Common Core math standards are “more rigorous standards.”

Leaving Some Behind

Another issue Rabatin and Kimble said they encountered when dealing with Common Core math is their children simply lacked continual learning.

According to Rabatin, her son hardly appeared to learn anything due to moving at a slow pace and assuming the role of teacher in many instances.

“(The class) goes at such a slow pace,” Rabatin said. “His teacher … was having him teach the other students who didn’t want to learn to start with. They were working on math problems and his teacher said, ‘You’re responsible for making sure everyone in your group knows this.’

“The others students didn’t want to learn; they didn’t care. (Our son) got so frustrated because he was trying to help them or teach them and they didn’t want to learn so they’d get mad at him and in an entire hour and a half, they would have done two problems and he wasn’t learning anything. He wouldn’t get anything done in group.”

When given problems to work through apart from the group environment, Rabain said it took only a few minutes for their son to complete the work.

Kimble added that at the middle school level the frustration with group work abounds.

“If a child is excelling at math, under the group-work system, more responsibility is placed on that child. He or she is expected to discuss and to re-teach the lessons to the other children in the group.

“The child-in-charge often encounters fellow students who don’t want to learn, let alone learn his or her lessons from another student.”

Putting Kids First

When all is said and done, both Rabatin and Kimble said it seems as if the children have fallen in the priority ranking.

When Rabatin expressed concern about how her son was feeling in math class, she said it seemed to go largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. Rabatin also experienced push-back after opting her son out of the Westest.

“We opted (our son) out of the Westest this year simply because I knew it was laying the groundwork for … all the (Common Core) stuff coming for next year. I didn’t want his information on that computer list.”

After submitting the opt-out form, Rabatin, along with her son, made a requested trip to the assistance principal’s office.

“When I submitted his opt out form for the Westest, the assistant principal brought us into his office and wanted to know why we were opting him out of the Westest,” she said. “I basically told him it was because I was not a fan of the fact that this was laying the groundwork for next year’s implementation of Common Core and that this was going to be setting the stage for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium coming into play. It turned into a 30 minute conversation with him about this stuff.”

During the course of the conversation, Rabatin said neither her son’s test scores nor the knowledge of where he might be on the educational scale were the primary point of concern. Rather, it was about funding that could potentially be lost, she said.

When it comes to the future of students in the Mountain State under Common Core, Kimble is pessimistic.

She said that this year, Bridgeport High School’s class of 2014 was comprised of bright students, many of them receiving scholarships and admissions to nationally and internationally recognized institutions of higher learning because of their outstanding academic records. Several students were awarded full or partial scholarships to their selected colleges and universities.

“Not only were their academic testing scores evaluated, but their transcripts were reflective of the challenges that they met,” Kimble said. “These students were able to be competitive with students in-state and out-of-state.They were able to compete with students from private schools.”

Regarding her two children still in the school system, she fears the changing educational landscape.

“I think my kids will be harmed,” she said. “Common Core will make them less competitive because of what courses will be on their transcripts. Some states are opting out of Common Core.

“Private schools, including parochial schools, are electing to maintain the Traditional Pathway for their students. Therefore, West Virginia public school students will be competing with students from other states and the class of private school students who will continue to have the strength of transcript behind them for national and institutional scholarships, as well as admissions to private and/or out-of-state academic institutions.”

According to both Rabatin and Kimble, their children and the entire state, deserve better.

“I believe the entire state deserves more,” the Harrison County mother said.

Instead of being a state that only produces “worker bees,” entrepreneurial ambitions and independent thought are things both Rabatin and Kimble said should be nurtured.

“West Virginia should be encouraging each child to perform to his or her highest potential,” Kimble said. “Each West Virginia student should be encouraged to pursue his or her dreams of a future without the state impeding those dreams through the adoption of a curriculum that is only suited for a ‘common’ student.

“I don’t believe that any of the children of West Virginia are common. We should not except a common set of standards in any of our communities. I have to believe that all parents want the best for their children. These standards are not the best.”

Rabatin also said the standards produce future compliant employees, at the expense of independent thought and action.

Not Parent-Led

Both Rabatin and Kimble agree Common Core was not state-led or parent-led.

Rabatin first experienced Common Core in the fall of 2013, with Kimble first hearing about it in 2011.

“The (creators of Common Core) didn’t have the best interest of the state in mind when it was done and the names are misleading,” Rabatin said.

Ultimately, Rabatin said it is up to the parents to get involved.

“Parents have just got to get more involved in what their kids are being taught and stop just thinking, ‘oh, somebody else is going to take care of it,’’’ she said. “Get out of that mentality and get involved. Common Core is just not working.”

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