New Common Core materials are changing the way kids learn math in Wake County

Wake County students taking high-school-level math courses are now finding that getting the right answer isn’t always as important as the process they use to solve the problem.

Wake began rolling out this school year new classroom materials from the Mathematics Vision Project, a nonprofit education group that provides resources designed to align with the Common Core learning standards. Wake school leaders and teachers say the new materials have led to major changes in how math classes are run to shift from lecturing to having students work in groups to learn concepts through problem solving.

“We have to teach failure as a part of learning,” said Brian Kingsley, Wake’s assistant superintendent for academics. “If we’re going to be college and career ready, the answer isn’t always the most important thing.

“It’s the process to be able to work in a team and ask teachers, to gain resources, making sure you’re engaging in questions around things you’re struggling with, learn how to come to a consensus, learn how to think creatively.”

The new materials are being used this school year by the 14,305 Wake high school and middle school students taking Math 1. They will be phased in for other high school math courses over the following two school years.

Math and English/language arts instruction became a focus of parent and legislative fury after North Carolina joined many other states in 2012 in using the Common Core standards. The math standards were designed to emphasize critical thinking over memorization, but some parents and teachers say the changes are confusing and frustrating for them and for children.

State legislators tried to force changes with the State Board of Education voting to modify the math standards in high schools and elementary and middle schools.

Common Core was adopted during a period when cuts to state funding for textbooks meant schools were left on their own to purchase resources.

In May, Wake 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. Both groups provide open educational resources, meaning the material is in the public domain or can be freely used and edited.

For the first time since the recession, all Wake schools have been using the same classroom materials. Stephanie Herndon, an eighth-grade math teacher at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh, said she’s now able to spend time deciding how best to use the materials instead of hunting online for resources.

Math I students got workbooks this school year, but a lot of what they experienced was unexpected. Instead of students copying what their teachers write on the board, they’re working in groups to solve problems such as how long it would take to drain water from a pool. Teachers are guiding the students instead of lecturing them on subjects like quadratic functions.

“Instead of me saying, ‘Here is a linear equation: It’s y=mx+b,’ it’s much more, ‘Let’s get to this equation,’ ” Herndon said. “It’s very much a different approach. Rather than me giving them all the answers, they’re having to work towards them themselves.”

(From left to right) Eighth-grade students Tiernan Flood, Kaudia Williams, Jade Daniels and Alex Bica talk through a math problem at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. on Nov. 13, 2017. T. Keung Hui

A similar increased emphasis on working in groups is taking place in classes using the new language arts materials.

The Math 1 students were initially surprised they weren’t getting the answers and weren’t talking as much in their groups, according to Cindy Kremer, principal of Leesville Middle. But Kremer, who has observed several of the classes, said students have adjusted to the new expectations.

“They trust them (teachers) to guide them to get them there, to facilitate them to that point,” Kremer said. “But they also realize that they have to work hard and they have to think hard and think differently.”

Kingsley, the assistant superintendent, said the new teaching approach is part of the shift to make sure students understand the concepts behind what they’re learning.

Lucine Barker, an eighth-grade math teacher at Leesville Middle and Herndon’s mother, said the new materials fit in with the Common Core approach of covering less ground each grade level but going more in-depth.

Barker and Herndon said students have become more motivated as they work in groups developing multiple approaches to find the right answer.

“The kids are more engaged,” Barker said. “I think the math is more compelling. When they come in they want to know more about what we’re going to do today.”

Stephanie Herndon (left) and her mother, Lucine Barker, are both 8th-grade math teachers at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. T. Keung Hui

Sometimes, Herndon said, she tells students their answer is OK even if it’s wrong as long as they can explain and justify their response to show they have deep understanding of the concept. But she’ll give students more clues than normal to guide them to the correct answer.

The shift from a teacher-focused class to one directed by students will help young people as they head into the future, according to Kinglsey.

“We’re not only preparing our kids to understand the content, but we’re preparing them for the world post-graduation,” Kingsley said. “Students being able to work together, solve problems, think about real-world scenarios, not always worrying about getting the answer right but just going through the process – that to me has more value than whatever the (test) score is.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui