A unique approach to math helps boost achievement for American Indian children—and it shares striking parallels with the Common Core.
On one of the last days of school at Wyoming Indian Elementary School in the spring, Cheryl Williams is playing a game of “8-plus” with Atsa, a first-grader with a round, reflective face under a fuzzy thatch of black hair. These sessions are often playtime for Atsa, but they are always serious for Williams, a teacher who works one-on-one with young children to jump-start their stalled mathematical thinking.
The game is simple. Atsa throws a die with the numerals four through nine on its six faces.
“Seven,” he says.
Next, Atsa must calculate 8+7. Solving such an equation might seem simple, but Williams watches to see how he addresses the problem. It’s the boy’s strategy, not his answer, that will tell her what kind of progress he’s making.
Before he started working with Williams, Atsa would have approached the 8+7 problem by looking around for objects to count. If he didn’t have enough fingers, he may have counted objects lying on the table. Educators might reason he did the math this way because he lacked what the Common Core standards call “number sense,” the notion that eight is composed of smaller numbers like 4+4 or 5+3. Without the ability to “compose” and “decompose” numbers, experts say, children struggle with large quantities and fall behind on the path to understanding division, decimals, fractions, and percentages.
Atsa and Williams have grown close after spending half an hour together every day for a semester. They lean in over the small table like collaborators, if not playmates. He looks at her for approval. She snakes her arm around the back of his chair as he solves the equation on a wooden rack that holds two rows of beads, half of them red and the other half white. The apparatus, which looks a bit like an abacus, is designed to help children understand that numbers from 11 to 19 are made up of tens and ones—a concept integral to number sense, as laid out in the Common Core first-grade standards.
Atsa counts out eight of the 10 beads on the upper rod, sliding them to one side. Then he moves seven beads into place on the lower rod. From there, in an effort to see if Atsa can form numbers from tens and ones, she instructs him to swap the beads. He adds two to the first row and, in turn, takes two away from the one below: 10 on top and five on the bottom.
“How many is eight and seven?” Williams asks.
Atsa considers the bead rack: “15,” he answers.
Dozens of exercises like this one, used in individual sessions and in classrooms at schools like Wyoming Indian, seem as though they were designed to teach to the Common Core standards, which have been rolled out in most states.
But they weren’t. This teaching approach, called “Strength in Numbers,” was developed a decade before work even started on Common Core. First People’s Center for Education, a small nonprofit based in Sheridan, Wyoming, trains teachers at poor, mostly Native American schools throughout the West, like this one on the vast Wind River Indian Reservation. And although the sample size is small—Wyoming Indian Elementary enrolls about 350 students including prekindergarten—the program’s results have been striking.
Before 2006, when First People’s came to Wyoming Indian Elementary, less than a quarter of the school’s third-graders were rated “proficient” or higher on the state’s standardized math test. Since then, more than 60 percent have achieved this benchmark annually (with the exception of one year after the state increased the test’s rigor). Amid widespread debates over the Common Core’s long-term benefits, a handful of isolated, American Indian schools may offer an example of how a Common Core approach can work.
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