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In Rural Mississippi, Optimism for Common Core
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Destini hard at work at Quitman Elementary
Jackie Mader

This year the public schools in Mississippi are rolling out the new Common Core standards. The idea is for all kids to learn the same material no matter where they live. Jackie Mader is following Quitman County Elementary, a poor, rural school in the Delta. On this first visit, she looks at how teachers are bringing the new standards into math class.

LAMBERT, Miss. — It’s early morning in Tyler Corbin’s third-grade math class at Quitman County Elementary, and Corbin is about to teach his students how to divide. He draws 24 stars on his electronic whiteboard, and then draws three circles below them. With the class counting along, he drags stars one at a time into the circles to create three equal groups.

It may not seem like the traditional method of division. That’s because Quitman County Elementary is in the midst of rolling out the Common Core standards, which detail what students are supposed to learn in math and English in kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards are more challenging than Mississippi’s old ones. Instead of learning to count to 20 by the end of kindergarten, students must know how to count to 100. And instead of learning one or two ways to multiply, students in Corbin’s class learned half a dozen methods.

“They learned five times four is twenty,” Corbin said. “They learned five groups with four in each group gives me twenty things all together. They learned skip counting by five, ‘five, ten, fifteen, twenty.’ They learned repeated addition, ‘five plus five is ten, ten plus five is fifteen and fifteen plus five is twenty.’”

Related: Cramming for Common Core: one Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

Corbin says that one of the goals of Common Core math is to give students a toolbox of sorts, so when they see a problem, they have multiple ways to solve it. As his lesson continues, students try out yet another division method: using small colorful plastic circles.

In the middle of the room, 8-year-old Destini explains how she and her classmates will solve 16 divided by 4. “And then when we count out the sixteen counters, we’re going to draw the circles around them,” Destini says.

Destini carefully lays out the counters on a clear sheet on her desk. “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen … oops! Sixteen.”

She picks up a dry erase marker and draws a circle around groups of four counters. Then she checks to make sure she has equal groups. At the bottom of her paper, she writes the answer: 16 divided by 4 equals 4.

It seems like a lot of work to solve a division problem. But this kind of lesson emphasizes what principal Cytha Guynes says is another goal of Common Core: digging deeper, or helping kids understand what math is beyond drills and rote memorization. “You can try to teach a trick, and you can try to teach the steps all day long,” says Guynes. “But unless students really understand that division is splitting and multiplication is growing, you know, we’re really not doing for our students what we want to do to prepare them for the critical thinking that’s required at the college level, the collegiate level.”

That’s not to say they’ve thrown all the old-fashioned ways out the window. Math teacher Corbin still drills multiplication facts every Friday. But raising the bar is important here in Quitman County, where nearly 30 percent of kids don’t graduate from high school.

Math coach Guyniesha Johnson says that although the new methods could ultimately benefit kids, some students get discouraged. “They’re struggling a little bit, because there are certain strategies that they’ve never seen before, never heard of, their parents have not seen these strategies,” Johnson says. “So they come home with their homework and their parents are like, ‘you do it this way,’ and they’re like ‘no, our teacher taught it to us this way.’”

Related: Huge confusion in Mississippi over Common Core

So far, teachers are saying they’re having success with their stronger students. But the new standards are much harder for the kids who are behind grade level. Math teacher Tyler Corbin says those students need both to catch up and jump to the higher standards at the same time. “Well, for years, they’ve only had to just get the answer,” Corbin says. “But now they’re having to dive down and actually understand it.”

You’d think teachers here would be skeptical about Common Core. A lot of education reforms have come and gone without much improvement. But Corbin and many of his colleagues are optimistic that students will learn more with the new standards.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.