Math curriculum writer shares with SLV teachers
by Peter Burke
Oct 10, 2013 | 4297 views | 5 5 comments | 152 152 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
Lucjan Szewczyk/Press-Banner
How many is 10 sets of four? Obviously, the answer is 40.

Then, how many is five sets of four?

For those who answered 20, that is the correct answer, but not the best answer, according to James Burnett, the senior writer and founder of Stepping Stones, a new math curriculum by his company Origo Education, catered to national Common Core standards.  

The best answer, Burnett said, is “half of 10 sets of four.”

This concept is an example of the way students are learning to think at San Lorenzo Valley Elementary School as part of the implementation of the Common Core.

Burnett visited SLE and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Wednesday, Oct. 9 to talk about Common Core standards and how his company’s new kindergarten through fifth grade math curriculum, Stepping Stones, teaches conceptual learning, rather than memorization.

SLE, this year, is a pilot school for the curriculum and Burnett visited the campus on Wednesday to answer questions the teachers had and explain the thinking behind the curriculum. Within his presentation he identified three problems that the country faces.

“Teaching practices have remained the same for the past 100 years,” he said. “The teacher shows the procedure; kids practice it. (The Common Core) is trying to change that.”

Additionally, Burnett said, the U.S. math curriculum has consisted of too many low-level tasks where students are taught what to think, rather than how to think through a problem.

These two issues have led to a third issue: U.S. students are ranked 25th among their peers around the world in math skills, and the rank is falling, as 35 percent of 8th graders nationwide do not perform to an 8th grade level in math.

Thus, the adoption of the Common Core, which uses more visual models, different language to describe mathematics and more varied ways to solve problems.

“We want the kids to be thinking,” Burnett said.

Burnett built the curriculum from the ground-up specifically tailored to the Common Core goals and standards. To his knowledge, it’s the only curriculum that has been built to Common Core standards without any guides to adopt an existing curriculum to the standards.

“We don’t just address content, but the intent of the Common Core,” he said.

Burnett’s visit was facilitated by Hollie Becker, the district’s first-year Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services. Becker met Burnett last year during a conference in Chicago and was impressed with the curriculum.

“I was just really surprised by what the program offers,” Becker said.

She liked the many built-in videos and assessments, and was impressed how all the teachers are able to access lessons from kindergarten through 5th grade, rather than just their own grade level. She said the district is piloting the program this year, and will decide if they want to continue with it next year.

Fourth grade teacher Jamie Herman attended Burnett’s seminar.

“It’s nice to be able to ask questions and get responses and to see where they’re coming from,” she said.

Herman said understanding the reasons the curriculum is ordered the way it is has been hard at times. Additionally, she’s had to change the way questions are asked to incorporate Common Core thinking.

“It’s a big adjustment,” Herman said. “It’s a new way of approaching their thinking.”

Burnett told teachers “change is hard,” and that they would start seeing a change in students thinking in six or seven months.

- To comment, e-mail editor Peter Burke at, call 438-2500 or post a comment at

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R. Craigen
October 13, 2013
"Half of 10 sets of 4".

Right. The best answer is another question like the first. That's all we need -- engineers, doctors, nurses, and cashiers who can't do arithmetic ... but can rephrase the question.

How many Ccs of this painkiller can I give this child without harm? Umm, let's see, half as much as you'd give to an adult ... Hurry now, she's in pain!

How much stress can this beam take under full traffic? No problem, what is twice the amount as a single lane version of the same beam? My consulting fee -- twice what you paid last week, have a nice day.

Change for a five for $4.05? I think it's the same as change for a ten for $9.05...

Pay attention -- he's talking about FIFTH GRADE mathematics. But 5x4 is "too hard" to know, students must "work it out" with intermediate strategies.

I have a name for that: Mental clutter. At grade 5 if a student isn't doing single-digit arithmetic automatically in their heads without a moment's hesitation, they will have serious trouble handling fractions in grade 7 or doing elementary algebra with fractional expressions in grade 8/9. Cognitive science has identified this as the single most important predictor of later (Grade 12 and entry university level) success in math and technical disciplines depending on math (science, engineering, economics).

Common core has its problems. But it doesn't codify this nonsense. That would be Burnett and his ilk.

R. Craigen (PhD Mathematics, Waterloo 1991)
October 12, 2013
For clarification: Common Core is not an SLVUSD "experiment."

Nearly every state and school district in the United States of America is currently in the process of converting to the Common Core Standards, which align with educational standards across the rest of the world. This is not a local thing, it's a national and a global thing.

Keith Bowman
October 12, 2013
Which does not change Ms Turner's comment in the least.
October 14, 2013
At least someone is thinking critically. Thank you.
Betty Turner
October 11, 2013
This all sounds really sweet and innovative, but the view from the trenches is quite something different.

SLVUSD teachers are struggling with teaching these new concepts because they have had little time preparing for them. Kids at the higher levels of school are not getting it.

It just feels disconcerting to be a guinea pig in the SLVUSD's Common Core experiment.

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