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VIDEO: 5 Minutes, One Common Core Math Class, Deconstructed

Katherine Pardue's instructions to her class
Carol Jackson

Katherine Pardue teaches 6th grade at Guy B. Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. She's one of many teachers across the state who are beginning to use new strategies in the classroom as a part of the newly adoptedCommon Core curriculum.

North Carolina adopted the Common Core standards in 2010. 46 states worked together to create them.

The Common Core has proven to be controversial. Statewide, scores on standardized math tests have dropped by more than 30%.

Tammy Howard, the director of accountability services at the state’s Department of Public Instruction says comparing 2011-12 test scores with 2012-13 scores is comparing apples to oranges.

“Whenever shifts occur in what we expect students to know, then typically test scores do go down for a period of time while the the new content is better delivered and, thus, learned more by the students taking the test." They will go back up, she says.

We wondered how a math classroom might look different under Common Core, so we spent the morning with Ms. Pardue. We conducted an in depth interview with Pardue, as well as the school's math coach, her principal, and two students. We also sat in on a class.

Katherine Pardue, 6th grade math teacher in Chapel Hill, prepares for her students to arrive.
Credit Carol Jackson
Katherine Pardue, 6th grade math teacher in Chapel Hill, prepares for her students to arrive.

Pardue starts the first period class this way: "Morning guys, happy Wednesday, clear your desks, we're going to start with independent think time - 3 minutes. I want you to through the task, make sure you understand exactly. after 3 minutes in  groups, we will go from there. "

She then passes out a worksheet on which are a number of "tasks." She doesn't give any direct instruction. Rather, the student's job is to look over the material, and think about how they might solve the problem themselves.

Pardue says that the approach makes kids active participants in their learning: "They have to dig through the task, figure out what it’s asking. If they ask me a question I will say just try your best and walk away. I’m not trying to be harsh or rude, but I am just trying to get them to think for themselves and try to dig deeper into the task."

Her methods came as a surprise to students at the beginning of the year. She recalls that talked with new middle school students at the 6th grade open house. The kids said to her, "You’re not going to help me? You’re supposed to help me!'

Pardue says she responded clearly: "'I am your guide, I will help you figure it out, but I won’t tell you the answer.' It’s much more meaningful for them to figure it out by themselves with my guidance."

After the independent think time, Pardue puts the students in groups. They talk about their ideas, and wrestle with the math, trying to find ways to solve the tasks.

Pardue approaches each table as a listener. She poses questions designed to get the children to think more deeply.

Focus Questions Common Core
Credit Carol Jackson

New Ways/Old Ways

Many teachers, including Pardue, say that this way of learning is very different: "When I was in in middle school it was very different, the teacher would say open the book, turn to this page, do this, read this part, do this question, here's the formula do this. And yes, I learned, but it wasn’t at the deep level we are trying to get students to learn now.

My job has definitely changed from my first year until now. I’ve always questioned students, but it was, 'Here’s the notes, and then here’s the task.' Now it’s the reverse."

Now, Pardue first asks students to investigate and explore, taking notes all the while. Then they get together as a group and ask more broadly "What did we learn, what do we get out of this?"

A presentation is a key part of this common core style lesson.

One of Ms. Pardue's students presents to the class
Credit Carol Jackson
One of Ms. Pardue's students presents to the class

Each group presents their findings at the front of the room. Pardue again listens and poses questions.

Once she posed a tough question, and asked the students to take 30 seconds in their groups to discuss, and then they all talked about the students' ideas as a class.

At the end of the lesson, each group had strikingly different approaches to the tasks.

The Future Of Common Core

A recent Phi Delta Kappa, Gallup poll found that nearly 2 out of 3 Americans have never heard of the Common Core. And there are many in the state who oppose it.

Jonathan Enns is the principal of Phillips Middle School. He says that he's not surprised at the problems with the test scores. The tests haven't caught up. They aren't designed to measure the kind of learning happening in the classroom today, he says.

North Carolina state legislators have pulled together a 16-member committee to study the different assessments aligned with Common Core. They will decide whether to keep the current state-written assessments or go with national tests.

Reporter's Notebook/Carol Jackson: My son is a student at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. I went to "Back to School" night in September 2013, and was really surprised by the changes in the teacher and learning of math. I asked my son's teacher, Katherine Pardue, if she would be willing to have me come document her class for UNC-TV and

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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