Recently, a group of parents, upset with the district’s transition to the curriculum, abbreviated as CPM, pulled their struggling children out of math class at Evergreen Middle School and began home-schooling them in that subject. And last month, sign-wielding Common Core protestors crashed a Hillsboro School Board meeting. One shouted, “You lie!” during a district official’s presentation about the standards. Another, Jennifer Gallegos, sits on the board’s curriculum advisory committee, appointed by Common Core skeptic Glenn Miller of the school board.
CPM, which stands for College Preparatory Math, is much older than the Common Core – it dates back to the 1980s. But the district adopted the math curriculum in the spring to meet the Common Core’s tough new standards. Like the Common Core, CPM is no stranger to controversy. In 2009, it did not even survive a full year in theTigard-Tualatin School District. Even though teachers there approved of the curriculum, enough parents were up in arms that the school board reversed course.
Hillsboro is facing a similar situation now. Some parents have already abandoned CPM, and there are opponents on the school board and its curriculum committee. But conversations and classroom visits with teachers, principals and administrators throughout the district indicate that many of Hillsboro’s educators approve of CPM. As the politicization and debate surrounding the Common Core rages on nationwide, the curriculum will have to survive what could be a bumpy transition in Hillsboro, as harder state assessments based on the Common Core loom in 2015.
At Evergreen, a move away from “plug and chug”
A common misconception about the Common Core is that it is a curriculum that mandates what facts teachers should teach to students. Rather, it is a set of math and English language-arts standards that outline what students should be able to do at each grade level.
For example, the math standards say that in grade six, students should be able to “make tables of equivalent ratios relating quantities with whole-number measurements, find missing values in the tables, and plot the pairs of values on the coordinate plane.” It is up to individual states, districts and teachers to figure out which math books to use, what activities to plan in the classroom and how much homework to assign.
Explaining the Common Core State Standards
The Common Core is a set of math, reading and writing standards that spell out what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. They were developed by academic leaders, including the makers of the SAT, and top state goverment officials across the country.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core, which are based on international standards and were designed to better prepare students for college and careers. Additionally, Minnesota approved the language-arts but not the math standards. Federal Race to the Top money encouraged states to use the standards.
Oregon voted for the more rigorous Common Core standards in 2010. They will replace Oregon’s existing standards, and students will take the first Common Core-based tests in the 2014-15 school year.
That’s where CPM comes in. Launched in 1989, CPM is a math curriculum used in sixth, seventh and eighth grades that puts less emphasis on the rote “plug and chug,” in the words ofEvergreen Principal Rian Petrick, typical of traditional math curricula. CPM doesn’t give students formulas and algorithms at the beginning of the lesson and drill them with sets of numerical problems that require successful manipulation of those formulas. Instead, it guides the students through the process of discovering the algorithms for themselves and forces them to explain how the formulas work.
Hillsboro adopted CPM textbooks called “Core Connections Courses 1, 2 and 3,” published in 2012, in anticipation of the Common Core. The texts are aligned with the new standards and are not the same books that Tigard-Tualatin abandoned three years ago.
Portland State University’s Ron Narode, an associate professor of mathematics and a researcher in the Graduate School of Education’s department of curriculum and instruction, said Hillsboro’s decision was “probably a wise choice.”
“I think it’s got a pretty good track record,” Narode said of CPM. “So I would say if I had to choose a curriculum to use, I think this would be a pretty good match for what the Common Core is after.”
Seven parents pulled nine students out of Evergreen because of concerns over CPM, district spokeswoman Beth Graser said. The parents said their children, who usually do well in school, were getting poor grades in math and spending way too much time on homework. (There are 850 students total at Evergreen, which serves grades seven and eight.)
“I think that right now, it’s a really rough period of transition,” said Caryn Lawson, one of the parents who pulled her daughter out of math at Evergreen. She added that her concern is about CPM, not Common Core.
“That’s not the problem,” Lawson said of Common Core. “There’s so many great things about Common Core and it’s going to be good for the nation as a whole.”
Lawson said she thinks CPM’s ideas are great “in theory” and predicted that her younger son – who is learning a new elementary-level math curriculum called Bridges, which corresponds well with CPM – might handle CPM better than her daughter did when he gets to middle school, especially as the district works out the transitional kinks.
Lawson is considering opting her children out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, tests, the new statewide assessments based on the Common Core that students will take starting in 2015. She said she attended a presentation that previewed what the assessments will look like.
“They showed a seventh-grade question on the SBAC test…the question was ridiculously difficult and long,” Lawson said.
Regular unit tests in the classroom are getting harder, as well. Petrick, the Evergreen principal, said many students did struggle on one of the first CPM-based tests of the year.
“Many kids did not do well on a first test, but the test had a lot of prior-knowledge information on it that math teachers would expect kids to have coming from elementary school, and they realized that there are kids who have holes with math…I know that that startled some parents,” Petrick said.
Lawson and Julie Craig, another of the mothers who pulled her daughter out of math at Evergreen, said there was no review of those concepts that students had missed in elementary school, reaffirming Lawson’s concerns about the transition between the curricula.
“There are more students that get a failing grade in math than what we would like,” Petrick said. “Right now, it’s about one in five. About 20 percent.” But he added that the failing rate is no different than it was one year ago, before the implementation of CPM. What’s more, he said, is that the teachers love it, and so does his daughter, a sixth-grader at Jackson Elementary School.
“I know that the teachers – both her teachers at her school and the teachers at our school – feel like the kids are going to retain the concepts that they’re learning more than they ever were before.”
Even in math, a transition from numbers to words
Narode, the PSU professor, thinks CPM is “probably the best [curriculum] that’s available right now” to help districts meet the Common Core’s math standards in middle school, but he acknowledged that it’s “not a panacea for everybody and everything.”
“I know it’s been controversial,” he said. “I know that I have had some critiques from teachers that I’ve worked with in the past, mainly around linguistic issues – that the level of English-language knowledge that’s required for CPM problem solving tends to be a challenge.”
Craig, one of the Hillsboro parents, pointed out excerpts from a chapter of her daughter’s seventh-grade CPM textbook. “The focus is on vocabulary, not on formulas,” Craig said in an email. “So kids get vocabulary words and definitions at the beginning of class rather than equations.”
Here’s an example:
The chapter Craig provided deals with proportional relationships and how they translate onto a line graph. In the past, the chapter might have begun with the formula for a line in bold: y = mx + b, where m is the slope and b is the y-intercept. It might then explain that for lines that pass through the origin (which would eliminate b, because the y-intercept would be zero), the slope represents the “constant of proportionality,” or the multiple by which two sets of quantities are related. Math problems might then follow, and students could solve them by plugging numbers into the formula.
In the CPM chapter, the equation isn’t given until the end of the chapter, andconstant of proportionality is in bold rather than the formula, which is given as y = kx, where k is the constant of proportionality. There is no mention of “slope” or “y-intercept.” The exercises throughout the chapter require students to write out their explanations of what they see on graphs and in word problems without giving them the formula first – the goal is that they understand the concepts behind the formulas and arrive at the algorithms themselves. For instance:
“Carmen is downloading music. … Each song costs $1.75. Is this relationship proportional? Explain your reasoning. What is the cost for five songs?”
Many of the problems also require students to work in teams and justify to each other their answers, explaining how they arrived at them. Earlier this month at the district’s largest elementary school, Witch Hazel, sixth-grade math teacher Christal Winesburgh walked around as her students worked in small groups.
Winesburgh brought students to the front of the room, where they explained to the class how they solved the problems. “You guys had a great conversation,” Winesburgh said to two students at one point, calling them to the front. “I want everybody to see it.”
When asked how she liked the transition to CPM, Winesburgh said, “I love it.”
“These kids don’t even know that I’m testing them on vocabulary every day,” Winesburgh said. “They are just naturally using it.”
In her fifth-grade math classroom across the hall, Kim Porter was using an audio speaker system to create a “game-show style” atmosphere, encouraging the students to enunciate their answers clearly into the microphone.
“It’s really helping the kids who don’t feel confident speaking,” Porter said.
The focus on language and speaking, even in math class, aligns well with the Common Core, which emphasizes writing skills across all subjects rather than just in language-arts. As the students worked to solve for the dimensions and the areas of different rectangles, Porter walked around with flash cards containing the definitions for “dimensions” and “area” and added them to a wall that was home to cards for “equivalent fraction” and other math words.
“Even four years ago, we didn’t do math vocab,” said Christy Walters, an instructional coach at Witch Hazel.
— Luke Hammill