Courtesy SFUSDSFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza

SF teachers say Common Core standards make learning social, but challenges linger

Several years ago in Redding Elementary School teacher Mai Tien Nguyen's fourth-grade classroom, math was about finding answers as quickly as possible.

When students would ask Nguyen questions like why three times four equals 12, she would simply tell them, “That's just how it is.”

But this school year, Nguyen is using math status posters for students to explain how they solved a problem through pictures, numbers and words.

“It's not just numbers anymore,” Nguyen explained Tuesday at a panel on the new Common Core State Standards. “These numbers have value, they have meaning, and [students] need to know what the value and meaning is or they're not understanding the math problem.”

The panel at Roosevelt Middle School, comprised of San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as well as eight other teachers and administrators, offered a glimpse into the impacts of the new Common Core standards in The City's public schools.

This school year marks the first time all 1,800 SFUSD math teachers have implemented the Common Core curriculum, the first significant change to the district's math program since 1997. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, the SFUSD implemented districtwide its new curriculum for English-language arts, which is also based on the Common Core standards.

Teachers on the panel said the standards, which the SFUSD gradually rolled out since the 2009-10 school year, have made classrooms more collaborative because the curriculum encourages students to work together.

“Learning is a social process in my classroom,” said Shaheena Shiekh, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade math at James Denman Middle School. “My students have had a chance this year to defend their math ideas and question each other.”

While the new standards add up to more group work for students, teachers said that outside the classroom there needs to be more professional development as well.

“It needs to be this sense of a Common Core math community, where [in] kindergarten to fifth grade we're all practicing the same routines and procedures,” Nguyen said.

Carranza and Duncan conceded that educational changes don't come without challenges.

“Any time you raise the bar, it's a challenge,” Duncan said. “The fact that teachers are driving this is hugely important.”

The district is trying to carve out time on a regular basis for teachers to collaborate with one another, but in a way in which it does not impact time spent with their students, Carranza noted.

“You need to have professional development to develop capacity, but how do you bring teachers together without taking them out of their classroom?” he said, adding that schools get “creative with their scheduling” to allow time for collaboration.

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