Regina Miller of Omaha says she is no math whiz “by any stretch of the imagination.”
But when homework would stump her daughter Morgan, Miller could usually help figure things out.
This year, however, assisting her Omaha Public Schools fifth-grader has been frustrating.
Miller relies on the tried-and-true methods she learned in school to find an answer, but Morgan is being asked to master various alternative strategies for unlocking a problem.
“You know what the right answer is,” Miller said, “and you're teaching them a way to get the right answer, but it's not the steps that they're supposed to be taking in the classroom.”
More than 28,000 OPS students in kindergarten through sixth grade are using a new math program, Go Math!, aligned to the controversial Common Core State Standards, even though Nebraska is one of five states that have not adopted those standards.
Iowa is already a Common Core state, and more schools in the Omaha metro area are considering Common Core-aligned products as outdated math books come up for review.
Proponents hail the standards as the best yet to prepare kids for success in college or a career.
Advocates say Common Core math standards are specific, clear and explore essential concepts and skills in greater depth, arming kids to reason abstractly and unravel complex problems.
OPS officials say students this year are more engaged, enjoy math and understand concepts that in past years they had trouble picking up. Officials are confident Go Math! will ultimately raise achievement, calling it the district's most rigorous instruction program ever.
But some teachers and parents have raised concerns that echo those in other states that adopted Common Core math: that it makes math more complicated than it needs to be, and that it introduces challenging concepts when kids are too young to comprehend them.
As a result, critics say, struggling students, and those in special education, may find math tedious and frustrating and some could become discouraged.
OPS elementary students have been spending their one-hour daily math periods immersed in Go Math!
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the program should foster a deeper understanding of math concepts while de-emphasizing drilling and rote memorization, said ReNae Kehrberg, an assistant superintendent at OPS.
Go Math! emphasizes building math vocabulary at a young age, modeling mathematical processes in multiple ways and unraveling complex story problems that reflect real-world situations.
For instance, most people learned the standard algorithm of addition: stacking the numbers vertically above a line, adding the ones column, then the tens and so on, carrying a one when necessary.
Algorithms are still taught in Go Math!, but students also learn alternative strategies, such as breaking apart addends (the numbers being added) to make them compatible.
Never heard of it? That's where you add or subtract from a number to make a new number that's easier to work with. Confronted with the problem 178 + 227, a child would break 178 into 175+3, and 227 into 225 + 2. It's easier then, the book says, to add 225 plus 175 to get 400, and add in the sum of 3 and 2 to get 405.
Lisa Holland, a 22-year veteran teacher who teaches second grade at Columbian Elementary School, was among those piloting Go Math! in OPS last year.
Holland said Go Math! puts a strong emphasis on number sense. Generally, that's the intuitive ability to understand numbers and the relationships between them, and to use those to solve problems, rather than just using algorithms.
In Holland's classroom, students first learn how to use various toy blocks and pictures to represent the problems, then they learn strategies before learning the algorithm.
“The algorithm is what gives them the least amount of number sense,” she said. “It's a formula.”
To help parents understand this effort to go deeper, she tells them it's like baking a cake.
In the algorithm, when a student forgets to carry the one, it's like leaving out an ingredient and the whole cake falls flat, Holland said.
When students understand that certain ingredients are basic in any cake mix to make it rise, they understand it more deeply, she said.
That's different from the way many adults learned math.
“It was, 'Follow the recipe and your cake will turn out right, and don't worry about how the cake is made,' ” Holland said.
During a Go Math! lesson last month, her second-graders were learning strategies for adding and subtracting three-digit numbers.
Her kids modeled several problems with blocks and drawings before solving and receiving Holland's praise.
“Oh my goodness, you guys are the smartest students ever,” she said.
Holland has also exposed her second-graders to vocabulary terms such as algebra, algorithm and commutative property of addition.
Holland said she believes that striving for deeper understanding will give students a better grasp on everyday math, whether they are calculating a tip at the restaurant or making change at the cash register.
Not everyone's sold on the Common Core approach.
Henry Burke, an Omaha civil engineer, has repeatedly testified before the Nebraska Board of Education urging members to reject the Common Core.
Burke points to a variety of educators and organizations that find fault with Common Core math, among them Truth in American Education, which defines itself as a national, nonpartisan group of concerned parents and citizens.
Among the group's concerns are that the standards delay development of some key concepts and skills such as the standard algorithms, while introducing “significant mathematical sophistication written beyond the level of most students, parents and teachers.”
Go Math! has its share of brain-busters.
For instance, third-graders must learn the distributive property of multiplication, which states that “multiplying a sum by a number is the same as multiplying each addend by the number and then adding the products.”
Or how about this story problem for third-graders, identified as “hot” in the GoMath! text because of the extra brain power required: Mr. Lemke has 5 guitars, 4 banjos and 2 mandolins. What is the total number of strings on Mr. Lemke's instruments?
Quiz yourself: More sample questions
One of the goals in Common Core is to have kids “make sense of problems and persevere.” To that end, Go Math! adds complexity to story problems so the path to solving is not readily apparent.
Some teachers in OPS are finding they can't fit the entire Go Math! lessons into the one-hour math period. Going deeper, one of the hallmarks of Common Core, takes time.
The lessons are taught at a fast pace prescribed by the district. That pace, in addition to the greater complexity, can challenge weaker math students, teachers said.
A few of the mathematical strategies are new to the teachers themselves, who got one day of training on Go Math! before its implementation.
Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, the union that represents teachers, said problems with implementing Common Core in other states, particularly lower test scores, have created a mistaken impression that the standards are bad.
“I don't think there's really a whole lot of validity to the notion that the Common Core isn't rigorous enough,” Proulx said. “If anything it's just the opposite.”
Adding rigor, which society increasingly demands of public schools, can create problems for kids who are already struggling to understand existing standards, he said.
District officials say they will track the problems that arise this year and make adjustments for next year.
Holland said she believes Go Math! offers something for all students regardless of ability.
“It's reaching all learners by giving them multiple entry points by giving them different ways to look at numbers and not saying that this way is the only way,” she said.
The plunge into Common Core — which is costing OPS $3.06 million — will give state officials more to think about as they conduct the five-year review of state math standards.
This spring state officials are asking college and university educators to weigh in on whether Nebraska's standards will prepare students for college and career.
A consultant who reviewed Nebraska's math standards last summer gave the nod in rigor to Common Core, but the two sets have a lot in common, with differences occurring in detail and sequencing.
District officials said OPS students still will be taught everything in the state standards, adopted in 2009 by the Nebraska State Board of Education. OPS teachers are supplementing instruction with content from another math program, Math Expressions. Kindergartners, for instance, will learn about coins and their values through Math Expressions.
Gauging the effectiveness of the new math will take time, but Kehrberg said initial diagnostic tests are promising.
A major indicator will be the state math test this spring, though Kehrberg said there is often a dip in scores the first year that teachers switch to a new curriculum. The state test is based on state standards.
What other districts do
» Elkhorn this year piloted the Common Core edition of GoMath!, the same program launched in the Omaha Public Schools. It will implement a new math curriculum for kindergarten through high school in 2014-15.
» Ralston uses Math Expressions in elementary grades and Holt Math for sixth through 12th grades, both of which are aligned to the Common Core.
» Lincoln does not use Common Core math. The Lincoln district last implemented a new math program in kindergarten through second grade in 2011-12, prior to the availability of Common Core-aligned programs.
» Douglas County West uses a variety of math textbooks aligned with the Nebraska standards.
» Westside's middle school materials are aligned by the publisher to the Common Core, but the district's curriculum is aligned to state and district standards for accountability purposes. The district purchased its elementary materials before the Common Core.
» Gretna uses Envision Math from Pearson. The program has the ability to “crosswalk” to the Common Core, meaning the Envisions curriculum standards can be compared to the Common Core standards, identifying connections and gaps.
» Papillion-La Vista recently adopted Math Investigations for elementary grades. The district supplements it with Calendar Math. Investigations is not specifically aligned to the Common Core, but it can be supplemented to cover the standards.
» Millard uses Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics. The 2008 edition is pre-Common Core.
» Bellevue use materials primarily from Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011 editions to teach the state standards. The district is scheduled to review the materials in about five years.
» Springfield Platteview does not use math books affiliated with the Common Core.