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M4: Midwest Mathematics Meeting of the Minds

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I recently attended the M4 Conference in Kansas City, where math leaders from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa met to discuss the Common Core Standards for Mathematics.  I was privileged to hear from Matt Larson the keynote speaker from Lincoln, Nebraska.  After humerously acknowledging that his state was one of the four who had, as of yet, not adopted the common core standards, Larson got right to work convincing us that the Common Core State Standards may be our last opportunity to get math education right!

Larson began his keynote address by looking back at the ten year cycle of math education beginning in the 1950's.  He cited a 2011 article entitled, Slouching Toward a National Curriculum, when he said, that despite these previous reforms, instruction has remained largely the same.  Larson then posed the question, "Will the CCSS Matter Ten Years From Now?".  He answered this question by first addressing what we know from research. 

Larson pointed to three major factors that can make a difference in student achievement. 

1. The quality of the teacher and teaching.  When it comes to the quality of teaching, Larson reminded us that instruction matters; teaching has six to ten times as much impact on achievement as all other factors combined.  He also referenced the book, Embedded Formative Assessment, when he said, "In the U.S., the classroom effect appears to be at least four times the size of the school doesn't matter very much which school you go to, but it matters very much which classrooms you're in."  Important components of instruction are emphasized in the practice standards of the common core and Larson emphasized the need for conceptual engagement, productive struggle, and mathematical discourse.  He even went so far as to say, that the United States has an instructional gap rather than an achievement gap. 

2.  Access to challenging curriculum. When Larson adderessed content expectations, he said the consequences are clear - less opprotunity to learn challenging mathematics corresponds to lower achievement.  Curriculum needs to be at a higher level of cognitive demand and all students must have the opportunity to learn and circumstances to engage in and spend time on quality academic tasks.  

3.  Access to organized classes where student's are well known and supported.  Students must receive early interventions when necessary and more time, rather than less demanding tasks, if we are to lessen the gaps between high and low perfoming students as well as the gaps between different ethnic and socio economic groups.  

Larson concluded his speech with the statement that the common core will matter in ten years, if we do these four things.  First, our focus must be on the Mathematical Practices, making our reform effort more about instruction and not just about content.  Secondly, we put structures in place to support all students in achieving the goals of the Common Core.  Next, we put structures in place to support teachers in improving their instruction by focusing their collaborative efforts on embedding the Mathematical Practices in their instuction. Finally, Larson says, we have to address the cultural resistance to change in our schools and in our culture at large. 

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