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Parents: It’s A Good Thing When Your Child’s Math Homework Scares You

A student in Mymy Chau's fourth-grade class at Perkins Elementary School look...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: A student in Mymy Chau's fourth-grade class at Perkins Elementary School looks at her classmate's math work on a projector screen.

Some San Diego children are coming home with math homework that looks foreign — and maybe a little scary — to parents. Several schools in San Diego Unified are piloting a new kind of math instruction that aligns with the common core academic standards. KPBS education reporter Megan Burks recently visited one of those schools and brought back this story.


I have a confession to make. I'm 31 and still use my fingers to add and subtract. Like a lot of people, especially women, I've always just thought I'm naturally bad at math.

Then I visited Perkins Elementary School in Barrio Logan.

Perkins is one of several San Diego Unified campuses piloting a new kind of math instruction that aligns with Common Core academic standards. It's based less on knowing tricks and procedures and more on understanding and communicating concepts.

"Back when you were in school and when I was in school, the way we learned mathematics — and I'll talk about the division of fractions — we all learned the trick. You flip (the fraction) over, then you multiply and that's how you come up with the answer," said Principal Fernando Hernandez. "It worked, but that didn't mean that you understand the concept.

"So something we would ask the students to do now is we might actually give them the answer. 'One divided by two-thirds is three-halves. Please justify that, prove to me that that is true.'"

In homework form, that can look pretty foreign — and maybe a little scary — to parents. Instead of 20 long division problems, they're seeing a single word problem and boxes crowded with drawings and words.

Photo by Megan Burks

A fourth-grade math assignment from Perkins Elementary School is shown, March 2, 2017.

In classroom form, it means fourth-grade teacher Mymy Chau and her students spend more than an hour to solve one problem.

"Four years ago I had my students sitting in rows and it was much more, like, me doing the talking and me demonstrating how you solve the problem," Chau said. "Now, the students are taking actions of their own learning. They're making sense of the problem, they're bouncing off ideas with a partner, they're struggling with the problem."

Chau is one of four teachers at Perkins who has spent two years working with a consultant and resource teacher provided by the district to develop this new teaching style.

It positions her in the classroom as a facilitator or guide encouraging students to explore ideas individually, talk through solutions with partners and even teach one another as they're learning the concepts.

It achieves multiple layers of learning to really let the concept sink in.

On a recent visit to the class, the students were practicing division. They started as a class reading the problem aloud. Then they went back to their desks to solve it using their own strategies — some kids used counting blocks, others drew blocks on paper, and some used the sophisticated area models they'd recently gone over in class.

Photo by Megan Burks

Perkins Elementary School students in Mymy Chau's fourth-grade class solve a division problem four different ways, March 2, 2017.

The students then shared their thinking with a partner. If the partner got the wrong answer, students took the initiative to teach him or her the right way. Then the students converged once more in the center of the room to have a guided conversation about the different strategies they used to "make the total into parts," to borrow the students' words to describe division.

By exploring the concept behind the procedures and finding the similarities among them, the hope is that all students in the class will work up to the more challenging area model some students were using.

"When they take control of their learning and it's more of them and less of me, the ideas and learning that they gain will last longer and be more meaningful and deeper, rather than if I just tell them an algorithm," said Chau, who rarely writes on the board, opting instead to project student notebooks onto a screen, misspellings and all.

The fourth-graders don't really remember learning any other way, so they can't compare teaching strategies. But they seem to like the approach.

"It's a very fun process learning with other students, like, friends in my class, and bouncing off ideas with partners," said 9-year-old Donnell Branch.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Donnell Branch, right, raises his hand in his Perkins Elementary Schoool fourth-grade classroom, March 2, 2017.

What do parents think?

"Many times they come and they say, 'Oh my god, I don't know how to do these problems,' or, 'The strategies that you're showing them I've never seen before,'" Chau said.

She said parent-teacher conferences and monthly "coffee with the principal" events often turn into impromptu math lessons, and the parents jump on board once they understand what she's trying to do.

Nadine Bezuk said more schools ought to jump on board, too. She has a doctorate in math education and is associate dean of San Diego State's College of Education.

"It's really state-of-the-art," Bezuk said. It hits on many of the learning habits students are expected to develop under Common Core. And it approaches math in a way that might limit the kind of math anxiety previous generations experienced, she said. But the idea isn't new.

"In math education we've been talking about this probably for 15 years, but not everybody has had the opportunity to learn it," Bezuk said. "As a profession we need to think about how do we help all of our teachers be current?"

Bezuk said principals who are strong instructional leaders and adequate time for professional development are key to take on a math overhaul.

And the latter costs money. At Perkins, Principal Hernandez tabulates the cost in his head — I'm impressed and a little jealous of the ease in which he does it.

The cost of one substitute filling in while teachers learn is about $150 a day. Multiply that times the number of teachers at Perkins, times 10 or 12 professional development days, and the cost comes out to around $40,000.

Hernandez said he doesn't expect the district to cover the cost next year. San Diego Unified is in the process of making sweeping budget cuts to fill a $124 million shortfall. But Hernandez said he's already set aside money to keep the program going.

It's worth it, he said, even though the investment isn't yet bearing fruit on state tests.

"But if you compare the students to themselves, if you measure where they are at the beginning of the year and you take that exact same student and you look at where they were in the middle of the year and at the end of the year, we see growth," Hernandez said, adding that about 30 percent of his students are homeless and many more come from low-income families. The school has never wowed on standardized tests.

If my experience is any indicator, I can tell you this: Ever since Hernandez taught me to subtract double-digit numbers from the left instead of the right (with that crazy "borrowing" business), my fingers have gotten a rest.


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