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Educators from the Sweetwater Union High School District join in math networking.

Two public learning events helped launch the San Diego Math Network (SDMN), a network catalyzed by UC San Diego’s CREATE in partnership with the San Diego Unified School District, Vista Unified School District, Sweetwater Union High School District, Chula Vista Elementary School District, and UC San Diego’s partnership schools.

The network (funded by the Gates Foundation) seeks to link the region’s educators in mutual learning, to support the region’s mathematics teachers to fully prepare each student and all groups in mathematics toward college and career.

The SDMN is focusing first on improving the transition from elementary to middle school in each district, in collaboration with core groups of elementary and middle school teachers who share students’ lives but have never met.

Public “learning events,” held without charge and led by San Diego educators, also invite the region’s math teachers to come together to explore issues of critical regional import in mathematics.

Connecting Secondary Mathematics Experiences to College Placement & Content Demands

Hosted April 14 at Gompers Preparatory Academy, this inaugural learning event invited Kim Samaniego, director of the Math Diagnostic Testing Program, to discuss the crucial pathway from high school to college level math. Mathematics is a subject that holds many San Diego young people in community college or keeps them from finishing degrees of choice at the UCs. (See the CREATE op-ed commentary on the need for supporting mathematics instruction across our region.)

Samaniego, a former department chair at Lincoln High School, addressed a late afternoon group of mathematics educators from High Tech High, Lincoln, and other schools in San Diego Unified and the Sweetwater Union High School District. “What expectations will my students need to meet to be ready for college?” she asked. “Not just getting there, but actually knowing enough math to persist. It’s vast to articulate that process. There are three different university systems — UC, CSU, and community college — and they all do something different.”

Samaniego first led the group of high school educators through community college and UC/CSU placement practices. In each system, students who test into remedial math have to pass a long series of courses to gain degrees or even become eligible to transfer to a four-year university via community college.

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Math teachers work through the misconceptions that might affect students’ math placement in college.

Samaniego then presented sample items like those on UC San Diego’s own practice test and asked the assembled group to try them. UC students too have trouble if they test into precalculus or “remedial” level math; many do, and find themselves at risk of not gaining degrees. So, “students must know Algebra II and trig,” said Samaniego. “It’s actually the Algebra I and II content that kids are still struggling with when getting to UC.”

The MDTP test, a program Samaniego now oversees, is a diagnostic test available to K-12 and early college students. The test is carefully designed to help instructors diagnose what, specifically, students are confused about when they choose answers to a series of math problems. “It helps us understand where they are getting stuck,” Samaniego said.

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Educators from High Tech High and Lincoln High School discuss placement tests.

Event participants taking the sample questions quickly realized that basic issues from earlier grades, like the order of operations, could cause a new college student to score low in college placement. Participants left musing on their critical role in preparing the region’s students to succeed in college.

Performance Tasks That Drive Quality Instruction

On April 23, The Preuss School at UCSD hosted “Performance Tasks That Drive Quality Instruction,” led by Katrine Czajkowski of Sweetwater Union High School District and David Weber of Preuss. Czajkowski and Weber met at an early networking effort by CREATE, discovered a joint love of “performance tasks,” and set to work developing tasks together for use both in Sweetwater and at Preuss.

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SDMN Learning Event leader David Weber, a math teacher at Preuss, at the April 23 event.

Performance tasks are rich word problems that make students demonstrate they actually understand the mathematics they are using to solve the problem. Often, performance tasks let students apply mathematics to compelling real world situations. The Common Core State Standards value both conceptual understanding and applied math knowledge, so many math teachers are beginning to design such “tasks.”

This time, teachers and administrators hailed from Baker Elementary, San Diego Early Middle College, Wangenheim Middle School, and King Chavez Academy of Excellence, Gompers Preparatory Academy, and Albert Einstein Academy charter schools in San Diego Unified, and from schools in Vista Unified School District, Sweetwater Union High School District and Grossmont Union High School District.

Weber asked participants to work through a problem asking students to consider circumference and area of rectangles and circles in order to calculate the percentage of a figure that was shaded.  Participants later found out that the problem represented the percentage of a parking lot covered in shade. Cities like Sacramento and Davis in California have ordinances requiring that at least 50 percent of a parking lot be shaded.

Weber noted, “A task that is seemingly quite innocent and simple has multiple strands of Common Core content meshed together.”

When constructing a performance task, he added, a teacher can ask, “What does this have to do with real life at all?  This nice problem – is it real?”

“The challenge is that we need to be better at connecting math to real world issues, as opposed to just counting hot dogs or making up other problems that are devoid of reality to students,” agreed John Bartholomew of Gompers.

Aly Martinez, a Sweetwater teacher, noted that juicy problems could also get students talking about math together, another expectation of the Common Core.

“How often do your kids reason and collaborate and ‘sense make’ together? To me a performance task is about having kids all talk and reason together,” she explained. “So to me, you always have to give the hook first; give a reason for kids to collaborate. If you frontload with abstract math, some kids won’t have the grit to keep going.”

She described a recent math example she designed, pitting the Chargers against the Raiders. “You should have seen the kids, they got pretty passionate. There was buy in to have a dialogue about the math because they were so interested. So I argue that the purpose of the task comes first.”

“Ask kids to find 10 examples where the math you’re working on in class is useful in real life. Then steal their ideas to make performance tasks,” advised Weber, adding, “Be open to your inner math geek.”

Performance tasks that really make students grapple with mathematics are “hard for kids, it makes their head hurt. They want to give up, because normally in math class they can do the worksheet and it’s fine,” said Becky Shultis, a Preuss teacher who shared a math “task” she’d designed. It asked students to figure out how much oxygen it would take to survive on Mars.

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Math educators from The Preuss School and from the Sweetwater, Grossmont, and Vista school districts begin the oxygen math task.

Shultis said she typically gave out one such problem a week as a homework assignment. “But sometimes I try to give them a problem that lasts the whole class. Another time, I’ll give one that makes them work in groups. And sometimes I give one to take home, work on alone and plan for what to do in class. Then by April they can do it.”

“It’s about knowing your students, and presenting the problem in an excited way,” she explained, “If you’re not, it won’t work. I did very well through all high school math, but nobody really pushed me to think.”

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Learning Event leader Katrine Czajkowski (center) and Preuss math teacher Becky Shultis observe teachers at work on the oxygen math task.
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Teachers from Albert Einstein Academy test and record task results.

Participants grappled with issues ranging from when to help students work in groups on such tasks, and when to ask them to work alone; how to support students who needed foundational skill help while tackling more complex mathematics (review basic skills before doing the task); how much time to spend on application (fun problems about Mars) vs. math fundamentals; and how to support teachers to decide together what level of math comprehension they expected from students.

As one teacher who said she “worked largely alone” and was “dying on the vine” put it, she was “intimidated by the creative process of having to make tasks myself.” The group ended with participants calling for making and sharing performance tasks together, informed by current standards.

“I have this vision of a matrix of the Common Core State Standards, with people adding great performance tasks for each piece,” Martinez mused, adding with a laugh, “We’re all math family now…. How cool would it be if we all came together in this time of need?”

“That is the beauty of this network,” added Czajkowski. “We have to exchange ideas, and help each other.”

About the San Diego Math Network

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the San Diego Math Network links four major San Diego County school districts in supporting math teachers. UC San Diego’s CREATE (Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence) is working with Chula Vista Elementary School District, San Diego Unified School District, Sweetwater Union High School District, Vista Unified School District, The Preuss School UCSD and Gompers Preparatory Academy in designing the Network’s first engagements with teachers. The San Diego Math Network seeks to identify key leaks in mathematics understanding, determine transition points in K-12 education where gaps in understanding jeopardize students’ future mathematics success, and develop a collaborative network to support teacher and student math learning in their districts.

For more information on the San Diego Math Network, contact Mica Pollock, CREATE director at micapollock@ucsd.edu or Susan Yonezawa, CREATE associate director at syonezawa@ucsd.edu.

To sign up to receive information on upcoming SDMN Learning Events, contact sdmn@ucsd.edu.