Thursday, November 6, 2014

Common Core enhances 'Camp Math a lot'

Tammy Jo Schlechter

Common Core Standards first came on the scene for me when I attended South Dakota’s Math-Science Conference in Huron in 2010.  I joined a breakout session where the topic was the proposed Common Core Standards in Mathematics. I decided to try them on for size in my own math classroom with permission from my principal at the time.  I was curious to see how they would fit with what we were already investigating for math concepts, and I was pleased to find that these standards aligned well with what I was already observing in the classroom.

Broadly speaking, these standards just make good sense and are actually standards for solving problems in real-life settings.  They encourage students to persevere and make sense of what is going on in their lives, reason through problems, make viable arguments, and be able to critique the reasoning of others.  They help students identify what’s needed to solve a problem and to communicate with others about their thinking. The old adage “think smarter, not harder” comes to mind.  Common Core Standards promote this type of common sense thinking.

My study of and training in Common Core Math Standards have opened the door for experiences that have positively impacted my students.  I have learned the importance of cultivating students’ productive dispositions, so they remain engaged as we encounter new and possibly difficult math concepts.  The students and I investigate math together in a more effective sequence and structure.  Strategies that I had already been using—for example, questioning and differentiation of instruction—are validated by Common Core Math Standards.  After working with these standards, I felt like someone had sneaked a peek into my classroom!

Here’s a specific example. Because the Common Core standards emphasize deep understanding, I have chosen to teach my students a method for division of fractions that is much different from the way I learned this concept. Division of fractions is found at the 6th grade level in the Common Core Math Standards.  The algorithm many of us learned for division of fractions involved inverting the second fraction in the equation or expression (also known as the divisor) and multiplying. 

With training, I have learned to create opportunities where students come up with ways to represent division of fractions that can be illustrated and follow the rules that they have learned with division of whole numbers. This deepens their understanding and helps them visualize what they are actually dividing.  Sometimes students eventually get to the shortcut of inverting and multiplying, but many times they leave 6th grade dividing fractions using strategies you would see when we add fractions (using a common denominator) or multiply fractions.  To sum it up (and I’m not talking addition here…giggle), we can divide fractions and give ourselves a visual representation of the division taking place.  With the invert and multiply strategy, it’s difficult to picture the actual division event.

I love learning about new ways to solve math and having students share how they’re thinking about the math.  In my classroom, also known as “Camp Math a lot,” we think about math not so differently from the way we did when I was in middle school.  What is different is that not just the teacher, but the students, are allowed to come up with the strategies.  Teachers have to be more on their toes now perhaps, because we need to understand the math concepts deeply enough to recognize student thinking that is viable or where they are having misconceptions.  I was well on the way with more effective instructional strategies before Common Core came along; however, with these standards implemented statewide, opportunities to discover engaging best practices for instruction is more likely for all of us teachers rather than just a few!

Tammy Jo Schlechter teaches middle school math in the Custer School District. She was a candidate for 2014 South Dakota Teacher of the Year.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Black Hills State University math and science professor supports proposed SD K-12 science standards

Ben Sayler
Ben Sayler is the director of education and outreach at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, SD, and a professor of physical science and mathematics at Black Hills State University. He recently wrote the following editorial, which appeared in the Rapid City Journal:

Forum: Proposed K-12 science standards deserve our support:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Proposed K-12 science standards to engage students in science and engineering

Julie Olson

Students come to us with unique sets of knowledge and skills. They are not empty vessels. The time has come for developing academic content standards that engage students not merely in memorizing a set of facts and procedures but trying to seek out new information and develop skills that will enable them to propose solutions to questions and problems. The proposed South Dakota science standards do just that.  

My role as a teacher in an alternative school offers unique insight into the role and importance of customization by drawing upon prior student knowledge and experiences to increase student interest and to make connections between the old and new information, thereby strengthening learning. Cognitive research has proven that student ownership of learning increases encoding and retrieval of information. Students get to own their learning because the proposed science standards ask students to engage in deeper thinking and utilization of learning in unique and new ways. The standards also aid learning by requiring utilization of English and math skills such as analyzing data, communicating information and arguing from evidence.

For example, a student with a love of art can engage in the study of the artist Alexander Calder and his kinetic mobiles while learning about simple machines, specifically lever systems then create a mobile, including images and items that correlate to them.  They can communicate how mobiles work as well as how Calder developed his techniques. Two students may have very different proposals for how to remediate a water quality issue. Students studying recycling could build pallet furniture, separation techniques for different plastics, or make paper from used paper.

The new standards include practices (e.g. Ask Questions, Investigate, Communicate). Just by definition, these are skills that must be practiced. Students naturally ask questions. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Men love to wonder and that is the seed of science.” We can utilize these student-generated questions to breed interest and direct learning.  Students can answer these questions by engaging in investigations and engineering design. There is always something of scientific interest sitting on the counter in the classroom: new zebra fish, brine shrimp, a tornado tube, or kinetic sand. Change it up and use student interest as teachable moments. Don’t just give them the answers but challenge them to try to answer their own questions and communicate what they found out. Let them set up an investigation.

Engineering is new to the proposed science standards and provides a great motivator for student learning, especially those that thrive with hands-on learning. Students studying momentum, impulse, and Newton’s laws build egg-drop containers or vehicles that carry a “passenger”/egg. Students learn about water quality by engaging in water testing and then proposing possible solutions to remediate problems.

I am fortunate to have been selected to be a part of the South Dakota workgroup to revise the state science standards. I can honestly say, as a workgroup member for the proposed science standards, that these standards have been developed with South Dakota in mind to ensure that our students’ unique needs are met. They are rigorous and they allow students to not only learn challenging concepts, but to engage in science practices to obtain the skills most important to future success in any career. These proposed standards will allow teachers and schools to develop engaging curriculum that not only connects with the unique needs of the local community, but also supports integration of other content areas, and allows for real-world application of scientific ideas and skills.

Julie Olson teaches science at Mitchell High School's Second Chance High. She is president of the South Dakota Science Teachers Association and chair of the South Dakota Outstanding Biology Teacher Award.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Dual Credit Opportunities, a column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard

As summer comes to a close, kids are heading back to the classroom. In some homes, parents are sending their little ones to school for the first time. In others, the older kids know the first-day-of-school-drill and they’re counting down the days until they graduate. Then there are some homes that will be a little quieter this fall because someone is leaving for college or technical school.

Today, more than ever before, it’s important for young people to continue their education beyond K-12. Back when I was in school, about 17 percent of Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree. Today that number is around 32 percent. If you include those who have associate’s degrees, the number is 42 percent.

Work in every field is becoming more competitive. The escalating number of people earning degrees and the increasingly competitive global economy require today’s workforce to have greater skill sets and more education.

Though it’s never been more important for students to continue their education beyond high school, higher education has never been more expensive. That is why we’re offering more affordable dual credit opportunities this school year to all high school juniors and seniors.

Dual credit courses allow students to take a single course which earns credit towards both their high school diploma and also a postsecondary degree or certificate. Dual credit courses can save students hundreds – even thousands – of dollars in tuition costs.

Without dual credit arrangements, a high school student taking a university or technical school class for credit must pay the normal tuition rate – as much as $300 a credit for university, distance-based courses. To reduce this cost, we are combining state funds with discounts from the universities and technical schools, to make entry-level courses at the universities and technical institutes available to high school students for only $40 per credit.

Students can choose from a wide range of courses, from biology, composition and algebra, to computer programming, ag chemicals and welding. Some courses are offered on university or technical institute campuses, while others are online.

Dual credit courses help students gain understanding of what will be expected of them at the postsecondary level. Dual credit courses also give high school students a jump start on a post-secondary degree and an early opportunity to judge what they want to pursue, or don’t want to pursue, before they graduate.

I know dual credit is just one small part of preparing young people to enter the real world – much of that preparation will have to be done on their own. Still, I think it’ll bring many students one step closer to being college and career ready.

Visit to learn more.

Friday, August 15, 2014

3 ingredients in the recipe for success: High quality standards, instruction and assessment

Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp
Welcome to the South Dakota Department of Education’s new blog.

Across the state, classrooms and playgrounds are bustling with activity. I can’t help but get caught up in the excitement.

I remember fondly my time as a teacher. There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of “back to school”—making sure everything is just so, from the brightly decorated bulletin boards to the cozy reading corner and colorful name tags on desks waiting to be filled with students.

Now, part of my job is visiting schools and classrooms all over our state, meeting the administrators, teachers and staff who tirelessly dedicate themselves to South Dakota students. This part of my job never feels like work. It’s an honor.

Every day South Dakota educators prepare students for college, careers and life. This preparation starts with those wide-eyed little kindergartners and carries all the way through to high school seniors ready to take on the world.

That’s a high calling. So, how do they do it? Good teachers know that there are three components vital to providing a quality educational experience: high quality standards, high quality instruction and high quality assessment.

Standards explain what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.

With new standards in English language arts and math, South Dakota teachers are going further in-depth with their instruction, helping students achieve deeper levels of understanding and make connections between classroom learning and the outside world. This is important work that takes time.

In the spring, South Dakota students will be tested on the new ELA and math standards when they take the new Smarter Balanced assessment. This new assessment provides a much more meaningful picture of student performance than our previous test.

We know that Smarter Balanced test results will look different than Dakota STEP test scores. It’s important to remember, though, that the two tests should not be compared. They measure student proficiency on two different sets of standards, and there will be a period of adjustment as students become familiar with the new standards.

The standards in ELA and math have been raised, so Smarter Balanced test scores are likely to make it appear that student proficiency has dropped. This always happens with a new test. It does not mean students are performing poorly. It means that we are challenging students and preparing them for the rigors of postsecondary and careers in today’s world. And I am confident that, given time, South Dakota students will rise to the challenge.

Assessment is just one piece of the education puzzle. All the pieces—high quality standards, instruction and assessment—fit together and play a vital role in every student’s education.