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Hechinger Commentary


It goes without saying that journalists covering school performance need at least a working knowledge of what is expected of students in each grade. In a classroom that takes state academic standards seriously, you will see those expectations on display, written in language appropriate for the grade level.

The standards in your state may be controversial—judged by some to be too easy (Florida’s, for example) or so extensive as to be little more than wish lists. (Many states are said to have fallen into this trap.) Or they may be quite rigorous, as in Missouri. In any case, a working knowledge of the standards will give reporters a sense of the progress of the students in a particular grade.

Here, for example, are the relevant math standards in California for the first-grade class in this video:

Grade 1 Grade 2 Grade 3
  • Use numbers up to 100
  • Count and group objects in ones and tens
  • Know the value of coins
  • Know addition and subtraction facts up to 20
  • Use the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction to solve problems
  • Count by 2’s, 5’s, 10’s to 100
  • Solve addition and subtraction problems with one- and two-digit numbers
  • Find the sum of three one-digit numbers
  • Decide how to set up a problem
  • Determine the approach, materials, and strategies to be used
  • Use tools, such as manipulatives or sketches, to model problems
  • Solve problems and justify reasoning and the procedures selected
  • Make precise calculations and check validity
  • Understand the relationship between whole numbers up to 1,000
  • Identify place value for digits up to 1,000
  • Use decimal notation and the dollar and cent symbols for money; solve problems with combinations of coins and bills
  • Solve simple problems using multiplication and division
  • Use repeated addition, arrays, and counting by multiples to do multiplication
  • Recognize fractions of a whole and parts of a group
  • Decide how to set up a problem
  • Determine the approach, materials, and strategies to be used
  • Use tools, such as manipulatives or sketches, to model problems
  • Solve problems and defend reasoning and the procedures selected
  • Make precise calculations and check validity
  • Count, read, and write whole numbers up to 10,000
  • Identify the place value for digits up to 10,000
  • Solve problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division
  • Multiply multidigit numbers by one-digit numbers

You can tell that at least some of these first-grade students are working on math expected of second- and third-graders.

The term “content” is sometimes interpreted to mean “facts.” Children in this video certainly learn facts (the double of eight). But they also are expected to use those facts in problems that require them to think with numbers.

What you may not realize is that all of the children in this video are working on a variation of the same math problem. “For Mother’s Day, Tyler gave his Mom a box of candies, and three out of every four candies had nuts in them.” The children in this room vary in terms of the sophistication of their mathematical skills and understanding. So, the teacher allows the children to solve the problem using one of three sets of numbers representing the total number of candies:

• 8 + 8
• (3x25) + (3x3)
• (18x25) + 102

She asks them to evaluate one of the expressions to determine the total number of candies. They then have to figure out how many three-fourths would be. Each child is learning the same concepts, but at his or her own level. This is an example of differentiating content so that each student’s particular needs are addressed.

Much of this teacher’s “teaching” is done by asking questions. She asks the boy at the overhead: “Can you count in 10s language?” “What would be the most efficient way of adding those numbers?”

Did you notice the concentration on the face of the girl who stumbled on the double of eight? Judy Johnson, the director of the Cotsen Family Foundation, says in her commentary, you can “see the wheels turning.” And it’s true. You could see the same expression on the face of the girl counting the three groups as she worked one-on-one with the teacher. Did you notice that the teacher did not correct her when her answer to a question was wrong? Did you see her think it through and correct herself? Did you notice the little grin on the face of the boy at the overhead, when he said he remembered there were 52 cards in a deck and each suit had 13 cards? The evidence of learning can be subtle, but it is plain if you know what to look for. It’s also obvious in classrooms where it is not occurring.

Scenes like this can help journalists illustrate and explain a variety of stories: about math teaching, standards, motivation, engagement, and the challenge of effectively teaching a range of children in a single classroom, to name a few.

The content is no less important in middle and high school classes. But teachers have to convince older students that what they are studying is relevant and not just important for passing tests. In addition to state standards, high school classes use the detailed curricula of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The challenge for high school teachers is to create a meaningful whole out of requirements that can seem like lists of names, dates, and facts. Nothing inhibits engagement as much as when students take a “so what” attitude. If you know the state standards or what’s expected in AP or IB classes, you can ask how the assignments and lessons you see help students master the required content.