Rancho Santa Fe School reassures parents: Common Core math concepts do add up


By Karen Billing

What does math look like these days?

A small cluster of kids around a tabletop with their teacher, discussing their math journals, where they solve a problem and explain how they came up with the answer.

Some students are working independently putting together a math robot, based on dimensions given by their teacher, while others use a measuring tape to measure their heights and other classroom objects, sharing helpful ideas with other students doing the same exercise.

And this is all happening in one second-grade classroom at R. Roger Rowe School.

As the Common Core State Standards officially take effect this fall, they have completely changed the way students learn and teachers teach, especially in math. Gone are the days of the teacher standing up front and directing the day. Today’s classrooms have an emphasis on collaboration, creativity and critical thinking; students master concepts on a deeper level at their own pace.

But as with any big change, there can be accompanying concern and frustration. The Rancho Santa Fe School District decided to get ahead of the problem by hosting several math information sessions, including one attended by about 40 parents on Sept. 23.

Many of the issues revolve around parents feeling lost when their children come home with homework they don’t understand. Others feel that the standards aren’t high enough, or that their children are losing some of the basics as math learning moves away from rote memorization.

RSF School District Superintendent Lindy Delaney said that nothing is being omitted; it’s just being given to students in a different way.

“My favorite part of the day is when someone says, ‘We are here to do what’s best for the children,’ and someone says it all the time,” said Phyllis Slotnik., the district’s new math specialist.

Slotnik said that her face “lights up” when she looks at the curriculum, as she feels it is all amazing, well-researched, conceptual math learning.

“The standards are a baseline and we expect our students to exceed them,” she said.

“The quality of instruction and the material is outstanding,” said Delaney, adding that she can sympathize that things look very different. “I’m sorry for parents, I understand you feel like a fish out of water with this.”

Delaney said the school is at a huge advantage because they’re smaller and there are constant conversations about what works best.

“We’ve gone into this very thoughtfully … it’s a process, and if we see something’s not good for kids, we won’t do it,” Delaney said.

Parental concerns ranged from whether the district is preparing students for the next step to how they can help their children when they come home with “scary homework” they do not understand.

One parent expressed frustration about the constant explanations required in Common Core math, which asks students to explain how they arrive at answers. The parent said it really was wearing on her child to dissect every math problem; it has become a struggle to justify every answer.

“It’s important to communicate ideas to others because it really shores up their understanding, to demonstrate their learning in more than one way,” Slotnik explained.

Delaney said it’s important to realize they are building habits and ways of thinking for the future. While it can be challenging now, the students must show that they understand it in order to do what is asked of them at the next level.

“When someday the answer is beyond his understanding, how is he going to get it? There will be a wall where he has to pull on everything he’s learned to figure it out,” Delaney said. “We have to teach them to think.”

To answer some parents’ concerns about the next step, Delaney said their math pathways are aligned with those of the San Dieguito Union High School District. Delaney said that students are prepared for high school and beyond.

Delaney said she follows up with private and public high schools to see how RSF students are transitioning to the next level. Delaney said she has had honest discussions with the high schools about their students, and they are all doing well and arrived ready.

“Our children are prepared to go to that next level and they do it strongly,” Delaney said. “We are preparing your child to go to college … and a good college.”

Another parent said that the perception that Common Core is holding the school back is not true. An engineer, he said he’d rather have 100 employees who learned in this way rather than the “human calculators” that they were all taught to be. Problem solving and critical thinking are where the future is, he said.

One parent said that while she understood that they are teaching problem solving and critical thinking, math fluency is still really important and she felt her youngster didn’t have the basics down solidly enough.

Slotnik said fluency is a big piece and is taught in every unit. There has just been a tweak conceptually, she said.

As part of the information session, parents toured different K-5 classrooms and saw their math workshops in action, featuring a direct introduction or review of a concept, independent practice and exploration of the concept, conferring with teachers and guided math in small groups, “Number talks” to make sure the students are solid in numbers sense, and journaling to articulate math understanding in writing.

After touring the classrooms, some parents questioned the process of independent explorations, where it seemed that not all of the students had grasped the concept. One parent said she was alarmed that the whole class appeared to be doing it wrong.

Delaney said they didn’t want the classroom visits to be “smoke and mirrors,” and that they visited classrooms on the first introduction of some units. The teacher would probably re-address the class or discover misconceptions or gaps in understanding while conferring with the students individually or in a group.

Many parents also expressed frustration that they didn’t have a textbook to refer to, just online resources like ST Math, Dreambox Learning and Compass Learning. The district has not adopted a math textbook yet because it doesn’t feel that a complete program exists yet.

“If we expect kids to exceed our expectations, we have to pull from all different programs we know and create our own program where not a single component is missing, making the program that is best for us,” said K-5 Principal Kim Pinkerton.

“And that’s a lot more work,” Delaney added.

One parent complimented the work that’s been done with the curriculum and said teachers are educating her child “beautifully” — but she’s the one who needs a bit more help.

As far as extra help for parents, Delaney said the district is considering a few options, such as having a teacher at the school from 3-7 p.m. to provide help via phone call, email or visit. They are also willing to have more meetings on online resources and parent resources in general.

This month, they will hold similar parent information meetings on the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core curriculum. The scheduled dates are:

• 8:05 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, K-5 ELA overview, led by Principal Pinkerton and ELA specialist Lindsey Conley.

• 8:05 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, 6-8 ELA curriculum overview, led by Principal Garrett Corduan and ELA specialist Darcy Gleisberg.