Teaching to the Core

Six months after Idaho Core Standards arrived, teachers say they need more materials, training

broberts@idahostatesman.comMarch 8, 2014 

  • Critical thinking in math

    Students in Ramey Uriarte's seven grade class do more than practice math problems. In the problem below they have to decide if they agree with the answer or, if not, explain why they think it is incorrect:

    Sara looked at her savings-account register. She had a starting balance of $50.35. She deposited $30.15 this month. Her bank pays 2 percent interest monthly. She calculates her ending balance for the month to be $96.60.

    Her calculations are listed below.

    Step 1: $50.35 + $30.15 = $80.50

    Step 2: $80.50 x 0.2 = $16.10

    Step 3: $80.50 + $16.10 = $96.60


    If you disagree:

    1. What makes you say so?

    2. Show her how to find the correct balance.

    Answer: Disagree. Step 2 has the wrong percentage. It should be .02. The amount of interest would be $1.61, so the total would be $82.11

An animated cartoon projected on the wall of Ramey Uriarte's seventh-grade math class showed a young girl chatting on the phone with a friend about the temptations and responsibilities of getting a credit card.

Behind the girl, a bright yellow cartoon credit card encouraged her to go plastic. "Ever been to France?" the card asked. "I hear it's fun."

"I'm broke," the girl said. "How am I going to pay it back?"

Uriarte's math lesson was about proportions, rates and percentages. The teacher at Heritage Middle School in the Meridian School District chose to teach it through credit cards, a real-world use of the math he wants his students to learn. "I like to use a central concept," he said.

Cartoons didn't have much place in his classroom a few years ago. "I would spend much of my time just going through the textbook," he said.

But six months ago, the state launched the Idaho Core Standards - this state's vision for what its students should know and be able to do before they graduate. The standards are Idaho's version of Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. The standards emphasize critical thinking and real-world applications of what students learn in math and language.

Before Idaho Core Standards entered most Idaho classrooms last August, the Meridian and Boise school districts piloted them, and Uriarte and other teachers began looking for materials to meet students' needs. That led Uriarte to the cartoon credit card.

Common Core standards grew out of discussions among state public school superintendents in 2007. They sought to develop a set of goals for what students should be able to do and to increase rigor as a way to better prepare students for college.

The standards were put together through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national nonpartisan group of state school superintendents. Supporters say Common Core will give a baseline standard for comparing all 45 states in academic performance.


The standards rely heavily on teaching critical thinking and applying lessons to real-word situations. In math problems, for instance, students aren't just asked to give the correct answer but to defend how they got it. They may be asked to critique a problem and show where they agree or disagree with the way it was done. The point is to help children develop a greater understanding of math, not simply apply a set of rules to arrive at an answer.

Christy Schwehr, who teaches third- and fourth-graders at Boise's Amity Elementary School, gave teams of students different practical problems to work on. One group considered how to buy ads in a newspaper.

"It requires you to have a deep understanding as a teacher," she said.

Meridian and Boise school officials say applying the Idaho Core Standards has brought both success and problems. Students seem to be more engaged in their learning because they get to do things and not just listen to a teacher talk. But teaching materials are scarce, and sufficient training in Idaho's approach hasn't reached many instructors.

Moreover, Southwest Idaho districts complain that a Common Core student test coming this spring is too long - taking up to eight hours - and will eat up too much computer lab time that other classes need for instruction.

Districts won't get information from this spring's test. The test is essentially a field trial to test the validity of thousands of exam questions to be used in 23 states, including Idaho, that have joined to create the exam through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

School districts will have to rely on students to give them some sense of what the test is like and how well their schools prepared them for it. Scores will be used beginning in 2014-2015 to assess student, school and district performance, much as the Idaho Standards Achievement Test was used in past years.

State school officials are trying to lower expectations for how well students will do based on the test's rigor. In New York City and Kentucky, first-year test results were sharply lower than previous student results suggested.


The Legislature approved the Idaho Core Standards with virtually no dissent in 2011, but the standards have come under attack. Opponents complain that the federal government had its hands all over development of the standards and is taking decision-making away from states and local school districts. Backers of Common Core, such as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, say the federal government did not mandate the standards or pay for their development.

State Sen. Russ Fulcher, a candidate for governor in May's Republican primary, supported the standards in 2011 but now has a petition on his website urging their end.

State Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, who raised questions about testing initially, says he no longer supports the standards.

John Eynon, a candidate in the four-way Republican primary race for superintendent of public instruction, has built his campaign around dropping the standards.

The Boise and Meridian districts are pushing ahead despite the political disputes.

"We've made every effort to keep that away from the classroom," said Don Coberly, Boise's superintendent. "We have some teacher leaders who really (have) gotten on top of the Common Core issue."

Those teachers are often asked to answer questions about Common Core in discussions with teachers and others.

When administrators get questions about the future of the standards, they tell teachers not to worry about it.

"We've always been in favor of rigor," said Coby Dennis, Boise's deputy superintendent. "Irrespective of what happens with the (Idaho Core Standards) debate, we are going to continue to use our curriculum to teach our kids, which is including that rigor."


Students in Uriarte's seventh-grade class don't fidget much. They participate in discussion - some more than others - about the difference between credit cards and debit cards.

Giving students more authority over their learning, by working in groups and trying to solve real-world problems, pays off, Uriarte said.

When he started this discussion, students didn't know the difference between a credit card and a debit card, he said. So they learned about annual percentage rates and got a chilling lesson in the problem of making only minimum payments: It would take 36 years and cost $61,000 to pay off a $10,000 debt on a credit card with a 17 percent interest rate.

"I don't think I really want to use a credit card," said Kaizik Young, 12.

At Amity Elementary, Jamie Kubena asked each of his fifth- and sixth-grade students to write a persuasive paper about injustice.

The topic came about because some of his students were angry about a young man who made news after killing four people with a car while he was intoxicated, Kubena said. The teen claimed that he was a victim of his parents' affluence, and he received a light sentence.

Students have written about intolerance, bullying, how wealthy people try to avoid paying taxes, and animal cruelty - all based on their own research.

"They love to think for themselves," Kubena said.

Students traded papers for peer editing. A few years ago, Kubena would have edited the papers himself.

"I wouldn't have given them that much freedom," he said.


Uriarte found his credit card cartoon on the Internet the day before he showed it to students. He said he spends a couple of hours a day searching for instructional materials - outside of class time - to help his students understand math.

One place he doesn't look is a textbook. He can find proportion problems in texts, but not how to tie proportion to credit cards. "You can't replicate that in a textbook," he said.

For many teachers, textbooks are central to instruction. But the cost of the books, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy for several grades, has forced districts to slow down purchases. Spending cuts since the recession forced an end to textbook purchases by the Boise and Meridian districts.

Some textbooks in Meridian are more than a decade old. They introduce the concept of email, and some are old enough to say that golf pro Tiger Woods recently left college.

Changes in teaching approaches, including those encouraged by the Idaho Core Standards, mean "the old textbooks don't work," said Meridian Superintendent Linda Clark.

Moreover, as Common Core takes root nationally, a number of textbooks claiming to reflect the standards fall short, said Morgan Polikoff, who has researched textbooks at the University of Southern California.

Many books might cover the mechanics of math, for example, "but not the conceptual understanding that is one of the hallmarks of Common Core," he said.

Idaho's new standards have scrambled the math curriculum. Fractions are pushed to lower grades, where instructors have had little experience teaching them. Traditional high school geometry concepts are now stretched from third through sixth grades. And the requirement for applying subjects to the real world was barely present in older textbooks.

"The new assessment is based on applications," said Joe Kelly, math curriculum director in the Meridian district.

In their place, Meridian is looking for other materials it can produce to help students learn and that can be better tailored to a teacher's classroom.

"The big job left to be done is to ensure we have the appropriate content to do the instruction," Clark said.


Clark said every one of Meridian's roughly 1,700 teachers lacks sufficient training in Idaho Core Standards to teach them as well as she would like. Her district has lost five training days a year for teachers because of state budget cuts.

Teachers also need more understanding of the Smarter Balanced Assessment exam, she said. They need to know the form in which questions will be asked and need to work with sample questions of the kinds that will be on the test.

"Any implementation of a new set of standards in K-12 is a huge task," she said. "It takes some time for teachers to fully grasp all the nuances."

The training issue extends beyond Meridian. Idaho Core Standards, for example, require instruction in argument writing. Students are asked to make a claim and use reasons to defend it, then take a claim from an opposing point of view and use reason and research to disagree.

At Prospect Elementary School in Meridian, teachers received a single training day for an overview of Idaho Core Standards before this school year started. About 30 teachers from across the district attended a five-week class - from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays - to help them improve their instruction.

Michelle Storey, who teaches third grade at Prospect, understands how to teach the mechanics and content of fractions. But she sought help in learning how to incorporate pictures and other ways of explaining fractions to her students, she said.

Clark said more is needed.

"We are asking teachers and administrators to change everything about school, and that requires a tremendous amount of training," she said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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