DePaul’s STEM Center is partnering with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to roll out the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics for grades 6 to 11.  In a five-year effort, DePaul is developing and supporting professional learning communities, meeting regularly with teacher leaders to talk about mathematics and classroom engagement, providing in-classroom coaching, and giving CPS teachers the resources they need to teach math in a dynamic, inclusive way.
 
Lynn Narasimhan, a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and director of the STEM Center (in the photo, standing), explains the importance of the effort:
 
“The Common Core is not just about better mathematical content; it’s also about the best pedagogical practice. The old model of teaching says, ‘Some kids are not good at math and science, and that’s OK.’ But that’s not OK! We know a lot about how students learn, and by putting that knowledge into practice, we can keep students from falling by the wayside. The STEM Center’s work with CPS is part of DePaul’s bigger mission.”
 
With support from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, the STEM Center hired four math coaches, all veteran CPS teachers and administrators—(from left) Ruth Seward, Robert Wood, Alanna Mertens and Rickey Murff—who are working collaboratively on defining and executing optimal strategies for helping CPS with the transition to the Common Core.
 
Wood defines the big picture: “We’ve understood a good mathematician’s ‘habits of mind’ for some time, and standards of practice were outlined in the past by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. But the Common Core makes these ideals real, and that is very exciting. For example, one desired behavior, for students and teachers alike, is perseverance. But when one thinks of perseverance as classroom content and practice, what does it mean?  One answer is that we need math problems that can’t be solved in just one class period. Rather, let’s create problems that make students ask questions, do research and work together.”
 
Murff agrees with this new perspective. “When students get frustrated working on a problem, learning stops. That’s when the teacher should say, ‘How did you get this far?’  If a student can explain his thinking, he understands the principles. If he can’t, he doesn’t.  With the Common Core, we’re focusing less on ‘getting the answers’ and more on the process of discovery. Every student in a class needs to be able to enter into a problem. Maybe each one won’t finish the whole problem, but at least all will have some level of success. And that will keep them going.”
 
At this stage, the STEM Center is working closely with 150 schools and intensively in 50 schools.
 
“In implementing the Common Core, we knew we couldn’t just pop into a school, teach one workshop and leave—the effort has to be continuous and multi-layered,” says Mertens. 
 
“So, we’ve created professional learning communities where teachers can come together and share their experiences. That leverages our experience and expertise, while helping teachers feel less isolated. We’re also identifying math teacher leaders who can spread the Common Core content and pedagogy among their peers in their own schools. Most important, we’re helping teachers see that this is not a flash-in-the-pan or a here-today-gone-tomorrow program. The Common Core changes the game: It’s not a ‘teacher stands in front of the class, delivering knowledge’ model. Rather, its focus is student discourse and engagement.”
 
DePaul is also part of a four-university consortium (along with the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University) that is producing policy papers for implementing the Common Core for both math and science. The first, “Getting Serious about Implementing the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: An Implementation Guide for Schools and Districts in Illinois,” presents six recommendations:

  1. Craft a mathematics-specific strategy.
  2. Use assessments to increase capacity.
  3. Professional learning for teachers matters and must be of high quality.
  4. Invest in leadership development around mathematics.
  5. Real “opportunity to learn for all” requires significant changes in school structure and organization.
  6. Appreciate that the selection, adoption and implementation of instructional materials and tools are critical.
“We’re following these every day in our work with CPS,” says Narasimhan. “And, at the STEM Center, we have the interdisciplinary capabilities—the mathematicians and the math educators—to apply this best research about how to engage students in learning. The Common Core is more than an improved way of teaching and learning math: It’s truly transformative, and we’re proud to be part of that transformation for the Chicago Public Schools.”
 
For more information about the consortium (C-STEMEC) and for a copy of the guide, visit http://c-stemec.org/.