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Parents Voice Concerns Surrounding Common Core Math

Illustration by Kai Henthorn-Iwane

The Berkeley High School (BHS) Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) hosted a “Math Discussion” on Wednesday, April 18 to discuss the state of math at BHS. Around forty people attended the meeting, including BHS Vice Principal Felicia Phillips and Math Department Lead Teachers Nakia Baird and Dr. Kate Garfinkel.

“The reason why I’m here tonight is because I care about students being successful academically and creating ways for them to be successful in math,” said BHS parent and PTSA Director of Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Ramona Coates.

Many in attendance were particularly concerned about the effects of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics, which 42 states adopted over the past years. BHS implemented these standards in the 2015-16 school year.

Shifting from the previous track where students took Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and so on, BHS now has students take integrated math courses: Math 1, Math 2, and Math 3. A second track exists of advanced versions of each math class.

“There are pathways into the sequence for students who have [Individual Educational Plans] or otherwise may be at a different starting place,” said Phillips. “There are several opportunities for students to enter the advanced math track at various stages.”

The curriculum BHS uses is called Mathematics Vision Project and aligns with CCSS.

“The goal is to offer students each year a variety of the math disciplines embedded in the same year,” said Phillips.

Phillips said that students who successfully complete the three year sequence will be ready in the twelfth grade to take  math electives, those being advanced placement statistics or calculus, and math studies.

“There are a lot of students who struggle to be successful in math and we need to help support them and get a better understanding of the philosophy of why we are using this program, this Common Core,” said Coates. There were several parents in attendance concerned about how many students were struggling and failing CCSS math classes compared to previous curricula. Parents were concerned that teaching and testing were inconsistent across classrooms.

“It’s true that teaching practices and testing are not consistent across classrooms,” said Garfinkel. “We need meeting time to be able to discuss our teaching practices as well as other classroom policies.”

“The Common Core model can be very confusing, to the point where it doesn’t make sense to the teacher. But it’s definitely been teaching my peers and myself a large amount of content,” said Logan Gade, BHS junior and Math 3 student.

Baird shared some of the reasoning of switching curriculum and standards. He said that until the new system was implemented, students were spread across a number of advanced, regular, and remedial classes.

“We had a system here at Berkeley High that sorted students when they came in as freshmen. It was an extraordinarily inequitable sorting system,” said Baird. “We had an acceleration in our middle schools that was having students skip pre- algebra, go into algebra as seventh graders, and then take geometry as eighth graders.”

Baird said the acceleration from a young age didn’t match the academic maturity of the students, leading to many  dropping out of the honors or accelerated tracks as they entered high school. Large amounts of students also failed Algebra 1 in eighth grade and had to re-take it in high school, often failing again and entering a cycle of failure.

“We need to understand cognitively where students are because we were pushing them so much that we had a huge spread,” he said. “When we move the classes very early, we don’t have the same levels of success.”

Baird also mentioned that the mind-set created by a sorting system creates a detrimental atmosphere, as it pushed the idea that some people were inherently gifted or inept at math and thus set students who did not level up, on a path to failure.

“[We were] putting students in a cycle of failure over and over and eliminating their peers by having over accelerated sequences,” said Baird.

Common Core addresses some of the issues at BHS, said Baird. Although the failure rates are not ideal and staff and parents are always looking to lower them, with the new Common Core standards the playing field is more even.

“There’s no mystery that BHS has underserved our students, especially our students of color,” said Baird. “We have embedded pre-assessments that show that students are improving.”