TOWSON — It might seem odd to see two students excited enough about a math class in early August to share a high-five.
But the “students” actually were Glenmar Elementary School Principal Michael Parker and Hebbville Elementary 26-year veteran teacher Patricia Manley, both from Baltimore County Public Schools. And the teacher was, in fact, a “master teacher” selected by Maryland’s education department, Lisa Adkins of Lakewood Elementary in Montgomery County Public Schools.
On Wednesday morning at Towson High School, Adkins was giving Parker and Manley a primer on the future of math education in the state and throughout most of the country.
“With this, I think you’re going to see big changes,” Manley said.
They were learning curriculum from the Common Core State Standards, which will change the way K-12 students in Maryland are taught math and English.
Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, along with teachers, school administrators and other experts, to better prepare American students for college, work force training programs and the labor market in the global economy.
The goal behind the standards is to advance students through gradually more complicated and easily linked concepts that promote using more than one discipline in a course. Maryland and 47 other states signed on to the national Common Core standards last year.
This summer, about 6,000 Maryland educators are being trained in the new Common Core standards — three teachers and one principal from each public school in the state — at Educator Effectiveness Academies like the one Monday through Wednesday at Towson High.
The idea is to remove the pressure for teachers to race through as many subjects as possible over the year and give them more time for in-depth lessons in fewer topics, Adkins said.
“It’s helping them take a question and really analyze it, figure out what they need to solve it,” said Adkins, an elementary school teacher and one of 150 master teachers selected by the state out of 1,000 applicants to lead the academies.
One way to think about the Common Core is as a series of Russian nesting dolls. A third-grade math teacher, for example, will have a “domain,” or broad subject, in the discipline, such as “operations and algebraic thinking.”
Within each domain are various “clusters,” one of which for operations and algebraic thinking is, “Represent and solve problems involving multiplication and division.”
Within that cluster is the “standard,” or what third-graders ultimately are expected to demonstrate that they understand, perhaps the key piece of the Common Core. In this case, the standard would be students demonstrating that 5 multiplied by 7 can be represented as five groups of seven objects each, and create a real-life scenario to prove it.
To go about this, students must use the smallest piece of the Common Core, “Essential Skills and Knowledge,” such as understanding that multiplication is repeated addition and the ability to use concrete objects and pictures to demonstrate it.
On Wednesday at Towson High, for example, teachers had to identify the best argument for selecting whether they wanted a medium-size pizza with two slices left that were cut into eight pieces, versus the same pizza with two slices cut into six pieces.
“Problems like this are reflective of so many standards,” Adkins said.
Acting as a guide for the new math curriculum are eight “Mathematical Practices,” which are basically “habits of the mind” that educators want students to use. These include looking for and creating structure when thinking about mathematical solutions, and constructing arguments and critiquing others’ arguments, as with the pizza problem.
In English, meanwhile, students will be asked to read more work independently, while showing they understand more complex books than in the past. The Common Core’s literacy standard also will incorporate social studies and science texts.
The hope is that teaching practices produce students who can describe how and why it is they understand their academic material, and also have learned to think for themselves, said Scott Pfeifer, director of instructional assessment and teacher effectiveness at the Maryland State Department of Education.
“The standards are more rigorous than standards that we’ve had before,” he said.
Although it has taken required standards and other concepts from the national Common Core model, the state is creating its own unique version of the curriculum.
After revising the draft curriculum over the next two years, building up teacher resources and doing more professional development, the curriculum will be field-tested in 2013-2014, and revised for the 2014-2015 school year, Pfeifer said.
Additional academies with the same number of teachers and principals will be held in the summers of 2012 and 2013. The teachers who attend these also will help their school systems’ curriculum officials to develop transitional plans to the Common Core for the system and individual schools.
The academies are funded by the $250 million Race to the Top grant Maryland was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education last year to reform teacher evaluations and improve struggling schools.
One concern for Sharon Whitlock, principal at Baltimore County’s Mars Estates Elementary, is that teachers be given enough professional development time to truly understand the Common Core.
“Some of the skills may be new to the teachers,” she said.
Parker, observing teachers at work, said the new standards had the potential to teach students key concepts while making sure they weren’t just using formulas as a classroom crutch and spitting back answers to teachers.
“It has to go beyond drill and kill,” Parker said.