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California Schools Grapple with Implementing New Math Curriculum

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A young person wears a face mask while seated at a desk inside a classroom.
The 2023 math framework, passed by the State Board of Education in July, is a 1,000-page document detailing what many state and education officials accept as the best practices to teach mathematics. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

After a contentious road to approve a new set of statewide guidelines on teaching students math, California officials must still figure out how to support school districts with implementation.

The 2023 math framework, which the State Board of Education passed in July, is a 1,000-page document that details what many state and education officials accept as the best practices to teach mathematics. Although not everyone agreed and controversies arose during the four years of work it took to reach approval, math experts and organizations across the state are beginning to discuss what a statewide rollout could look like.

The state hasn’t provided funding for implementation, which is typical, said Mike Torres, director of curriculum frameworks and instructional resources for the Department of Education.

Historically, framework rollouts have not been funded and are implemented with outside collaborators who are experts in the topic. For the most part, district officials must find ways to fund professional development independently.

“This situation with the mathematics framework is not different,” Torres said. “There isn’t any specific funding where we can pay experts to help us participate in webinars … or put on events.”

It’s unclear why California has historically not set aside money to help districts implement new guidelines, but that could change.

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During a news conference last month, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said he intends to introduce legislation to fund professional development for math and reading teachers. The funds could be up to $500 million, he said.

Torres said the California Department of Education would need to find other ways to offset costs if events are held. It’s too early to know what kind of rollout could or will happen. Torres and his team have had three meetings with groups they work with to talk about a framework rollout, he said.

Many organizations are collaborating with the California Department of Education on implementing the math framework, including the California Mathematics Project, California County Superintendents Curricular and Improvement Support Community, California Math Council, California Teachers Association and county offices of education.

During other framework rollouts, districts have sent teams of teachers and administrators to training and then had them relay information to the rest of the staff, said Kyndall Brown, one of the framework authors and executive director of the California Mathematics Project — one of the state’s partners. It’s something that could be replicated during a math framework rollout.

Even if there are conferences teachers can attend, one professor said she isn’t a huge fan.

“One day of hearing these ideas doesn’t necessarily translate into having a balanced curriculum — at all,” said Karajean Hyde, co-director of the UC Irvine Math Project. “It doesn’t necessarily create change in the classroom.”

To create changes that will increase students’ proficiency in math, teachers need trainers who will work with them consistently in and outside of classrooms, Hyde said, which is work she does with her colleagues.

Brown said school districts do have pots of funding that could be used for professional development, such as special education funds or funds from the Local Control Funding Formula.

However, the governor allocated a $50 million math, science, and computer science professional learning grant in the 2022 budget to help fund professional development. Some allocations have been given to the county offices of education, Torres said, and the offices handle how the money is used.

The timing of the grant worked out perfectly with the beginning of a math framework rollout, said Ellen Barger, an associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction at the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. Other grant funds are being used to support rural school districts in particular, and the most recent grant will help to continue building coherence across all counties and to fill gaps.

“The framework is one of the tools that’s helping us achieve a vision of high-quality mathematics for every California student, and we are building structures to bring people together to build knowledge and skills to operationalize that vision in every county, district and community,” Barger said.

Equity in implementation

As of this school year, 939 school districts in the state will have to find resources to support educators in teaching under the new guidelines, which align with the California Common Core State Standards for Mathematics passed a decade ago.

How to make that equitable will be a difficult task.

Each school district has different needs, unique populations, and different levels of resources. For example, a district with more than 50,000 students typically has more resources and staff to support professional development. A district with fewer than 50 kids might have just one staffer taking on multiple roles.

Brown said some school districts have yet to finish implementing the Common Core standards, which detail what students in each grade level need to master.

Desks in a classroom.
Only about 35% of California students met or exceeded math standards this year, only about 1 percentage point higher than the previous year. Smarter Balanced Assessment results were lower for Black and brown students. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

“There was no rollout of the 2013 framework [common core standards],” Brown said. “You had county offices and math project sites doing what we could, but we’re running into teachers who still don’t know about the elements of the common core standards.”

There are also always new teachers coming into schools who will need to be trained, Brown said. “We have years’ and years’ worth of content.”

But at least some colleges of education at California universities have had many aspects of the math framework already embedded in their curricula for the last decade. Professors at UC Davis, UC Irvine and UC Riverside all spoke about how ideas in the framework have been used in their classrooms and the long history of controversy over how to teach math.

Hyde, co-director of the UC Irvine Math Project, works with districts to train teachers and students in the credential program to teach math. For years, she said, the focus has been on student engagement, understanding motivation, including student identities in lessons, and building healthy classrooms — all included in the math framework.

Hyde said most teachers teach how they were taught, learning shortcuts to solving math problems. This results in current and future teachers not understanding the mathematics behind what they’re teaching.

During professional development training, Hyde and other Irvine professors make sure educators begin to understand the concepts behind what they are teaching, she said. They spend time co-planning lessons, observing lessons being taught and relating what they are teaching back to the common core standards.

“We need to make sure teachers understand the math and how to teach the math first, and then it’s easier to help them consider, ‘How do I make this more engaging? How do I connect this back to the kid’s prior experience?’” Hyde said.

If teachers don’t understand the content, Hyde said, “I fear they will just have a series of super fun, engaging lessons that kids feel super good about, but they’re not mastering mathematics. I feel, in turn, that that is going to increase the achievement gaps that we already have that are horrible in California.”

The professional development work UC Irvine is doing has helped the two dozen districts they work with, but many districts still don’t have this kind of support in place.

It will take years until every student in California is exposed to a way of learning math that follows the guidelines in the framework and Brown said, “Something needs to change.”

Only about 35% of California students met or exceeded math standards this year, only about 1 percentage point higher than the previous year. Smarter Balanced Assessment results were lower for Black and brown students.

About 17% of African American students and nearly 23% of Hispanic students in the state met or exceeded math standards in 2023, which was only about a 1-point increase from the prior year. Brown called the results “horrendous.”

“It’s more than obvious the current system is failing too many people,” Brown said. “It’s long overdue — time to make some changes so we can see some different outcomes.”

A long way to go

The final version of the framework was posted last month on the California Department of Education website. Officials are still working on a professionally edited version of the framework, which can take about a year, Torres said.

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Although school districts have access to the final version of the framework, it will still take up to two more years to have math materials that are vetted and approved by the state board that align with the framework, Torres said. Some publishers have likely started to write new materials.

The earliest the State Board of Education will kick off the adoption of math instructional materials is January — when the board approves a schedule of hearings. Torres said districts aren’t required to use the materials approved by the state board, but it’s helpful for implementation.

School districts also don’t have deadlines for when the framework needs to be implemented, Brown said. Every district is on its own timeline.

Barger said a rollout isn’t an event but an ongoing continuous improvement process that could take six or seven years.

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