Educators call it the “flip test.” That’s when you pick up a textbook your school district is thinking about buying and you scan through it to see how familiar topics are handled. Today, school districts across the country are finding that the flip test is failing them when it comes to evaluating and comparing the new generation of mathematics curricula—curricula based on standards published in the early 1990’s by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
According to a new EDC guide to selecting mathematics curriculum, “The experience of learning to review standards-based curricula led one assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction to observe, ‘It requires educators to understand the value of the new materials. We have to be given new eyes, new yardsticks, and new noses to sniff out the good in the packaged stuff.’”
The staff of EDC’s K-12 Mathematics Curriculum Center at EDC likes to think of their new book, Choosing a Standards-Based Mathematics Curriculum, as the “eyes, yardsticks, and noses” schools will use to evaluate and select a mathematics program that fits their needs. The Curriculum Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, supports school districts as they build effective mathematics education programs using standards-based curricula.
“A school district cannot just buy the books in August and expect teachers to teach from them in September,” comments June Mark, director of the Curriculum Center. “The standards-based approach is quite different from what both teachers and students are used to. Teachers are asked to pose problems and activities that help students think about and develop mathematical ideas. Teachers need to have not only a solid understanding of the mathematics themselves, but they must also understand how to foster productive student thinking. Teachers are no longer handing off a theorem to students; they need to know much more and they need more support to teach in these new ways.”
The guide is broken down into three sections dealing with background on the standards, the process of selecting a curriculum that best fits a district’s needs, and curriculum implementation. Topics covered range from needs assessments to budgeting to gaining and maintaining support from teachers, parents, and community members.
The recommendations and tools included in the guide are based on extensive interviews with teachers and administrators from schools that have already selected and begun implementing a standards-based curriculum. The point of the interviews, according to Mark, was not to gather testimonials for a given curriculum, but rather to focus on the process of selection and implementation. “Our interviews have been designed to get teachers and administrators to talk about the ways they’ve found to make the curriculum work for them,” adds Mark.
Quotes drawn from those interviews appear throughout the book, providing specific examples to illustrate the key points of the guide. Here are a few examples:
On building a selection process
We broke with tradition in our recent middle grades mathematics curriculum materials selection process. Previously, a small committee of teachers would sit around a table for three days listening to presentations from publishers, review materials for three months, come back together to make a decision, and the curriculum would be implemented the following year. This process was not going to work with the reform curricula. There needed to be large-scale buy-in. Teachers needed to have in-depth experiences with the materials. They needed some training.
—a mathematics curriculum consultant
On community involvement
[The district] used community members all the way through the process of identifying what they wanted [the curriculum] to be, content-wise. They talked together about what was important to look for in a curriculum—what they wanted students to know. They looked at the state content standards, doing some envisioning of what they wanted.
—a state associate director of curriculum
On stages of implementation
In the first year we were dealing with classroom implementation: ‘How do I get started with the curriculum, how do I organize, how do I deal with correcting all the homework?’ In the second year teachers were ready for more content development. The materials are rich with mathematics content information. It’s there if the teachers are able to read it and take it in [without being overwhelmed by the logistics of the program]. They need to have the chance to take a summer institute on content, after the first year.
—a K-8 mathematics supervisor
On long-range planning
You also have to instill in teachers [that] it’s going to take them 5-6 years to become skilled teachers of the program. Like a skilled artisan given new, sophisticated equipment, they’re not going to get it right right away—they’ll need time. They must understand that, and we as administrators must also know that and give them time and support.
—an associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction
Originally published on March 1, 1999