PA Coalition for World Class Math

Anchorage dumps EM 8/20/2013

ASD's new math curriculum mixes old, new ideas

Published: August 20, 2013

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Anchorage elementary and middle school students will start the school year with a new, more traditional math curriculum that emphasizes learning addition, subtraction and other basic math skills one at a time.

It's the first major overhaul of the district's math curriculum in a generation.

The new textbooks, "Go Math!" for elementary school students and "Big Ideas" for middle-schoolers, try to strike a Goldilocks-like balance between teaching math through old-school skill drills and new-school conceptual problem solving, said Bobbi Jo Erb, a district math curriculum coordinator.

The textbooks will feel more familiar to parents than the much-maligned Everyday Math, first piloted in 1995.

"Parents will see pages come home that look a lot more like what they were used to seeing in school," Erb said.

The new math curriculum is part of a broader move to "Common Core Standards."

The idea is to do away with a patchwork of education standards that vary by state and replace them with consistent benchmarks that spell out what children all over the country should learn in math and reading at each grade level.

For example, a first grader should learn to group numbers into tens and ones and add and subtract up through 20, according to the standards.

Critics, including some in Alaska, say Common Core Standards amount to a sneaky federal takeover of education.

Some 45 states have adopted the standards. Alaska has not adopted them, but the Anchorage district voted to in 2012.

The new textbooks teach to the Common Core Standards, which changes not only the approach but how long teachers spend on skills and when they are introduced, said Erb.

In the past, teachers would touch on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division every year.

Now, "the Common Core has us teaching fewer topics more in-depth," Erb said.

In grades K-2 the focus will be on addition and subtraction. Multiplication and fractions won't come until grades 3-5.

"We want students to learn it backwards and forwards, so they are fluent," she said.

It's a departure from "Everyday Math," first piloted in 1995, which emphasized word-problem heavy conceptual math. Parents complained that they didn't get it and couldn't help their kids with homework.

Kids were "discombobulated" by the approach, said Karla Scherbaum, who has been teaching math in the district for 19 years and currently teaches sixth grade math at Begich Middle School. But it was creative and fun to teach.

The new textbooks, which she has been reviewing since spring, strike her as a "good combination of numbers and problem solving."

The district began looking for a new math textbook after a 2011 review of K-8 math recommended ditching Everyday Math.

A committee made up of teachers and community members selected the new textbooks from a field of six finalists in the spring of 2013.

The district earmarked $5 million to buy the materials and train teachers. So far $3.5 million has been spent, Erb said.

The new textbooks come from educational publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Much of the material will be available online, though it's up to individual teachers to decide whether they want to use actual paper or not, Erb said.

"Go Math!" is being used in districts both small and as large as New York City, which announced in May that it would teach its 1.1 million students with the curriculum.

Adjusting to a new way of teaching math is going to take time, said sixth-grade teacher Scherbaum.

"Be patient with us," she said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.


Wednesday is the first day of school for grades 2-12. Kindergartners and first graders start on Aug. 28.

Things you should know:

•This year an elementary school lunch costs $3.35, a middle school lunch costs $3.75 and a high school lunch costs $4.20.

• Families of students who are absent from school can expect a robocall from the district, no matter what the child's grade level is.

• The ASD is phasing in a new "Bring Your Own Device" policy at East, Chugiak and Eagle River high schools and Romig Middle School that allows students to bring smartphones and other electronic devices to school for educational purposes. The district's current policies on smartphones and other electronics still apply at all other schools.

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