Core Strength

Alumna Leads Way for Math Success

Across the country, 44 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted the Common Core State Standards for education. The goal of Common Core is to better prepare students for college and careers by raising students’ proficiency in math and literacy in language arts.

“We’re getting into the age where kids need to not only demonstrate competence with computation and procedural mathematics, but also articulate their reasoning,” said Carrie Mitchell (EdD ‘07), program director for Swun Math. “They need to be able to see mathematical relationships, and they need sentence frames to begin explaining what they know and how they know it.”

Mitchell, who was a school principal for 10 years in Garden Grove, California, saw firsthand how student performance could improve with a different style of instruction, long before Common Core was developed. When she took over at Clinton Elementary School, the district was already in the process of implementing a new approach to teaching math, a program called Swun Math.

“Many of the elements of Common Core fit naturally within the Swun Math lesson design,” said Mitchell. “Articulating math reasoning is a big part of our philosophy and has been built into our curriculum from the beginning.”

Si Swun, a math teacher from Long Beach, California, was an immigrant English learner who struggled with math as a child. He used his personal experience to combine American learning techniques with instructional methods used in Singapore, a leader in math achievement, to increase student success in his classes.

Eventually, Swun was asked to expand his model across several schools. In an article in The Atlantic from January 2014 titled, “The Common Core Is Tough on Kids Who Are Still Learning English,” writer Pat Wingert said, “Both Common Core and Singapore-style math emphasize a deep study of the most basic elements of math before moving on to more advanced math. Swun Math also encourages collaboration and talking through the problem-solving process.”

The lesson design is structured to ensure that students fully grasp a concept and can explain their reasoning before the teacher moves on to the next lesson.Teachers use the following model for working through a lesson plan:

1. INTRODUCTION: Demonstrate the concept and provide two examples.

2. STRUCTURED GUIDED PRACTICE: Students work with the teacher to walk through the steps, review the concept, and apply their knowledge to solving the problem. Collaboration and discussion with their fellow classmates is encouraged.

3. STUDENT PRACTICE: Once 80-85% of the class has demonstrated understanding of the concept, students work independently to solve problems. This gives the teacher an opportunity to provide more individualized attention to the students who are struggling.

4. CONSENSUS BUILDING: Once all students have completed their independent practice, they work in small groups to talk through each problem and agree on the solution before continuing. Teachers then call upon random students to present their work.

“Students have to work toward precise, clear articulation, and they have to be ready to support one another and work collaboratively,” Mitchell said. “This is very much in line with Common Core mathematical practices and behaviors.”

One of the perhaps unforeseen benefits of this approach to teaching is the positive impact that it has had on students who are English Language Learners (ELL). In Garden Grove, the majority of Mitchell’s students fell into this category.

features2nd-core-strength3“I got to watch students who were previously struggling become very successful in math,” said Mitchell. “We had students who were too sick to come to school make their parents bring them anyway because they didn’t want to miss math class.”

The requirements to articulate the reasoning behind a solution to a math problem call for teachers to include strategies for teaching English and expanding students’ vocabularies in their math lesson plans. Due to the crossover, both ELL students and English-only students are seeing improvements in language arts and other subject areas.

“We are a math company, but it is an easy match to many of the lessons taught in language arts and in science and social studies,” Mitchell said. “Teachers have so much success with the Swun lesson design that they figure out where else they can apply the techniques to attain the same level of achievement from their students. It’s sound instructional design.”

Central to successful implementation of the Swun Math lesson design in the classroom, is support from the Swun Math team. Mitchell and her counterparts work closely with not only teachers but also the schools’ leadership teams to ensure success.

“I provide direct administrative support at school sites who are implementing Swun by spending two to three hours a month with the school principals,” Mitchell said. “I help principals benchmark the progress they should expect from teachers and students, and help them see the next steps they need to take.”

As a company, Swun Math also provides one full day of professional development at each school every month, specifically for teachers. Mitchell said the training sessions this year have focused on working closely with teachers to help them see that the Common Core structure is already embedded in Swun Math.

“We’ve got a job to do with helping all teachers understand mathematical concepts,” said Mitchell, “but what the Common Core is giving back to teachers is the opportunity to think big ideas again and really teach kids fundamental concepts to produce more substantial work.”

Mitchell is aware that Common Core and Swun Math require a shift in the way teachers approach their lessons. Since this may take more time than they are accustomed to, support from principals is critical. Principals are trained to be thoughtful about how they’re going to provide preparation time, provide accountability, and celebrate successes.features2nd-core-strength2

“My focus is math, but it’s the same practices across the school in every content area,” Mitchell said. “Principals need to ask, ‘Where do we need to go, how are we going to get there, and how are we going to use all of our resources appropriately to get to where we need to be?’”

In the absence of buy-in from the entire team, implementation can be less effective. Mitchell has seen students suffer when some teachers are not onboard with changes. For example, if one out of three teachers for a particular grade level decides not to participate, those students will not be on the same page as their peers when they move on to the next grade level.

“Leadership is what happens between thinking a great idea, making it happen, and getting results,” said Mitchell. “It doesn’t really matter who takes ownership, but someone has to motivate people to get it done, do it well, and to keep learning about it.”

Just as the lesson design encourages collaboration amongst students to find solutions to problems, Swun Math coaches encourage administrators and teachers to work with the leadership and instructors at other schools. This is accomplished through site visits or simply by fostering relationships based on this shared professional interest.

“Swun is not just a math company or a technique for teaching,” Mitchell said. “It’s about leadership, relationships, and leveraging a professional learning community model.”

In the next academic year, schools will be implementing Common Core standards across all subject areas. Mitchell understands the transition won’t be easy, but she is enthusiastic about the potential for improved student achievement.

“I’m excited that kids are going to have the opportunity to learn not just how to do something but why it works,” Mitchell said. “In a couple years, we’re all going to be really great at it.”

To learn more about Swun Math, visit

To read the aforementioned article in The Atlantic, visit

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