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Math Teachers Find Common Core More Rigorous Than Prior Standards

A large majority of middle school math teachers say the common core is more rigorous than their state's prior mathematics standards. At the same time, most teachers reported receiving fewer than 20 hours of professional development over the past year related to the common core, according to the new study.

These and other findings come from a joint project among researchers at several universities supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

One particular dimension of professional development that the authors suggest would be especially important is helping teachers to "meaningfully incorporate" the common-core's Standards for Mathematical Practice into their instruction. Another is to help teachers identify and gauge the quality of online materials that mesh well with the standards, given that most teachers report they still use math textbooks adopted prior to the common core.

The survey, conducted this spring, involved 403 middle school math teachers from 43 of the 45 states to adopt the common-core math standards. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester (in New York), Western Michigan University, Michigan State University, and Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Most of the math teachers reported being "moderately or extensively familiar" with the math standards, according to the study, issued this month, but not everyone. About 14 percent said they lack this level of familiarity with the math content standards, and 13 percent with the math practice standards.

With regard to relative rigor, 86 percent said the common-core math content standards were more rigorous than their state's prior standards. About the same figure, 87 percent, said the math practice standards were more rigorous than their prior standards.

The 'Biggest Innovation'

The teachers surveyed seemed especially upbeat about the math practice standards. (The common core identifies eight practices, including making sense of problems and persevering in solving them, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, modeling with mathematics, and constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others.)

In all, 71 percent of teachers "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that the focus on math practices is the "biggest innovation" of the standards, with 95 percent saying that participating in those practices is essential for students to learn math.

However, the study's authors said teachers "appeared to hold contradictory beliefs" about the math practices. Even as they called them essential to math learning, the majority also agreed that successful participation in the practices requires that students first understand math content.

"Thus, it is not clear how teachers will incorporate the Standards for Mathematical Practice within their classrooms," the study says. "Will the belief that these standards are essential for learning mathematics play a bigger role in teachers' planning and implementation of lessons or will the latter belief that students need to learn mathematical content before engaging in mathematical practices dominate lessons?"

Teachers Rate Their Districts

Teacher views on the quality of their district's response in preparing them for the math standards were divided, with a tilt toward a downbeat assessment. The focus here was on both professional development and providing curricular materials. The researchers categorized teachers' open-ended responses into several types. Of the 215 who replied to this question, 129 had a negative reaction to their district's actions, while 43 were mixed, and another 43 were positive. (On the negative end, it quotes one teacher as saying, "I wish we had more resources so that we didn't have to make all of them ourselves.")

The study also provides some insights into teacher practices and beliefs more broadly, including the view that drill and practice are critical. Below I group together those who said they agree or strongly agree with a few statements about teaching math.

• 82 percent agree that drill and practice are essential for developing math understanding;
• 95 percent agree that hands-on activities are important for learning; and
• 77 percent agree that understanding concepts should precede fluency with computations.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a more extensive, national study of teacher attitudes and beliefs in math and science instruction.

Another set of questions got at teachers instructional-planning practices. Again, here I bundle those teachers who agree or strongly agree with the following statements:

• 66 percent plan mostly on their own;
• 38 percent say they have adequate time to plan instruction;
• 77 percent frequently discuss math with their colleagues; and
• 48 percent regularly join with colleagues to study student work.

A press release about the new study emphasizes that a key goal of the research is to better inform the types of professional development that will be of most benefit to teachers as they seek to implement the standards in their classrooms.

"Very little is known about how to support teachers, specifically mathematics teachers, as they enact rigorous standards, like the common core, in ways that transform their current instructional practices," says Jeffrey Choppin, an associate professor of education at the University of Rochester, in the press release.

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