Language arts and math classes in Wake County are using the same playbook for the first time in many years, but the way students are learning is changing as schools move away from traditional paper textbooks.
For the first time since the recession in Wake, the same materials are being used in language arts classes in third- and sixth-grades and in Math I classes in high schools and middle schools. The new online material is free, and teachers are changing their methods so students work more in groups and don’t rely on traditional multiple-choice tests to show what they’re learning.
Wake school leaders and some teachers say the changes are a needed boost to improve how students are taught in the 21st century.
“Our kids are having a newfound love of learning because they’re really getting it,” said Holly Rupert, a sixth-grade teacher at East Wake Middle School near Knightdale.
In May, the Wake County school system picked EL Education and the Mathematics Vision Project as their new providers for, respectively, language arts in elementary and middle schools and high school math. Wake selected those education nonprofit groups over the materials offered by the big textbook publishers.
Both groups are open educational resources, meaning they provide material that’s in the public domain or can be freely used and edited. School districts and universities around the country have turned to open educational resources instead of traditional textbook publishers as a low-cost way to provide material.
The material can be accessed by parents and students 24 hours a day on the district’s Canvas learning management system website, http://wcpss.instructure.com/.
Wake is paying for things such as workbooks for students. But Brian Kingsley, assistant superintendent for academics, said it’s so much cheaper using EL Education and the Mathematics Vision Project that Wake is able to invest more money into training teachers on how to use the new resources.
It’s also cheap enough that Kingsley said Wake plans to begin using the new language arts material in grades four, five, seven and eight next year instead of phasing it in over two years.
Kingsley said Wake still plans to phase in the new math material over a three-year period. But he said staff is looking at requesting new materials for middle school math.
Schools had been on their own picking resources since the state cut funding for school textbooks during the recession. State funding for textbooks went from $111.2 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year to $2.5 million the following year. It’s at $73 million this year.
East Wake Middle sixth-grade teacher Angie Cummings said she’s now spending more time figuring out how to use the material to meet her students’ needs as opposed to just hunting down what resources to use.
Rupert agreed that teachers’ times are better spent now that they’re working from the same set of materials.
“We’re not having to use our time to find all these resources,” she said. “It’s given us an opportunity to dig deeper into the curriculum.”
Among the things that classes are doing more of is working in groups. Wake heavily promotes teaching students skills known as the “4Cs” – collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking.
In math, students work in pairs or small groups to solve a task. The teacher circulates among the students as they work on the problem before bringing them back together to discuss different ways to come up with a solution.
A similar approach is used in language arts where students are split into groups of three, called triads, as they work together to understand the reading materials. Students bounce ideas off each other, including as they edit each other’s writing.
“We want them to learn to be respectful of other people’s opinions,” said Rebecca Beaulieu, principal of East Wake.
The new materials downplay the use of multiple-choice tests to gauge student performance. Students are instead asked to explain their work to show that they understand the concepts.
“It’s not just a check-off and a grade in a grade book,” Beaulieu said. “It truly is about learning a skill or knowledge that’s going to take them and advance them to the next task that they need.”
Before the start of the school year, Cummings said, teachers weren’t sure the students could handle the new material, which asks tougher and more in-depth questions. She said it’s forced teachers to push students harder, and they’ve responded.
“It’s amazing what the sixth-graders are capable of that I just didn’t think we realized,” she said.