Berkeley school board discusses differentiation in district’s Common Core math curriculum

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Michelle Kim/File

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Berkeley Unified School District parents and staff discussed the implementation of the Common Core curriculum at a school board meeting Wednesday night, focusing on the need for differentiation in teaching math.

A small development team of school district staff presented its progress to the school board. During the meeting, concern about differentiation — a strategy used to adjust curriculum to accommodate students of different learning styles and levels — steered discussion of the new math standards.

Common Core standards are a set of learning objectives in math and English language arts initiated in 2009, which more than 40 states have adopted. The standards give districts flexibility to develop their own curricula as long as students meet the objectives.

When California adopted the standards in 2010, Berkeley public schools had already fulfilled some Common Core English language and literature standards. The district is focused predominantly on implementing a new math curriculum called “the story of units.”

Nila Rosen, a school district parent and member of Berkeley Advanced Learner Support and Advocacy, said to the board of directors that current standards didn’t encourage teachers to push their students if it meant deviating from curriculum.

“There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in the district,” Rosen said at the meeting. “And not all learners’ needs can be met.”

She described how her fifth-grade son spent half of each math class reading because he finished his work and wasn’t given supplementary materials. She said her daughter was told not to work on multiplication or adding three-digit numbers because it wasn’t in the curriculum for first-grade math.

“As the mother of a daughter who is interested in math, it has been very painful,” Rosen said. “Teachers are discouraged by the district to stray from the curriculum. She was asked to suppress her interest.”

School board president Judy Appel also expressed concern about the curriculum posing a challenge to different-leveled learners.

“I worry about kids that aren’t strong in math,” she said at the meeting. “I think (the standards) are so theoretical that it might take kids time to catch up.”

Lori Macdonald, an elementary school math coach for the Berkeley school district, said the issue of differentiation was not unique to the Common Core specifically, adding it should be addressed by teachers.

“Differentiation is something that teachers need to learn to do better. It’s part of our professional development,” she said. “I‘m not sure if it’s curriculum that does that.”

She stressed that the issue at hand was choosing the specific math curriculum that the district should adopt. The team is assessing a handful of different curricula, including the one currently implemented in the district.

The team is projected to make an official recommendation to the board by late spring.

Arielle Swedback covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.