My Thoughts on Common Core Math

Common Core standards have become a huge hot-button issue among parents, teachers, and politicians.  Let me say, up front, that I have not researched this topic in-depth.  I’m not claiming to be an expert on All Things Common Core.  However, I have heard many parents of elementary-aged children express frustration at their inability to help their children with their math homework because the way concepts are taught is so foreign to the way they were taught for generations prior.

In the examples that I have seen, there seems to be a common theme of focusing heavily on teaching the conceptual side of math.  This sounds like a great idea on the surface.  As a college teacher for thirteen years, I can attest to the fact that many students are leaving high school with very little understanding beyond basic math.  In fact, many remain downright terrified of fractions.  According to Common Core, the solution for this is to focus on fewer topics, cover them in greater conceptual depth, and include lots of application (i.e., word problems).  The goal is said to be focus, coherence, and rigor.

The Common Core Shifts in Mathematics from achievethecore on Vimeo.

This sounds very good on the surface.  But how is it actually being carried out?  Here’s an example from a 2nd grade classroom in my state of Georgia:

It’s 13 pages long, so I won’t copy it into this blog.  It’s all different ways for a student to add and subtract.  Thirteen pages worth of different ways to do two operations!

So many students already hate math.  So many students are not at all prepared for college-level math after high school because they’re lacking the necessary prerequisite skills.  Spending almost all of kindergarten through second grade learning method after method for adding and subtracting is not the answer.

I see two basic problems with the way math is now being taught under the Common Core standards:

1.  Multiple options are given for solving a single type of problem.

Are there multiple ways to solve a problem?  Often, yes.  Are there benefits to those different methods?  Absolutely.  Is it necessary or beneficial to teach all of those different methods to each student?  In my opinion, no.  Why would we want to make math harder than it has to be?!?  Want to know what my college students say to me every term?  “I wish you could have been my teacher in high school.  The way you just explained that is so simple!!”

I do think that math teachers should understand and be prepared to explain multiple problem-solving methods so they are ready to help struggling learners who didn’t understand the first method and advanced learners who are curious about how else a problem could be worked.  I don’t see the benefit of teaching a whole class of second graders 47 ways to add 19+23.

2.  Math is best understood in the rear-view mirror.

Here’s what I mean by that: I didn’t gain a strong number sense until I learned Algebra.  I didn’t fully grasp the purpose of Algebra until I was in Calculus.  Calculus made so much more sense once I took Differential Equations.  And so forth.

I don’t think math is unique in this.  As humans, we learn “how” before we learn “why.”  My five-year-old daughter is reading lots of new words every day.  She doesn’t yet need to know that they are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.  When a piano student first begins and his teacher shows him “middle C, ” she doesn’t explain that it’s also B-sharp and D-double-flat or that it’s the 5th note in the F major scale.

If Common Core was applied to basketball, I would sit my son down and explain the shape of a parabola.  We’d learn to spell the word and use it in a sentence.  This would lead us to quadratic equations, the quadratic formula, and completing the square (because these are all topics that flow from the study of parabolas).  Then we would talk about acceleration, deceleration, and angle measures (in both degrees and radians).  Additionally, we’d need to cover the history of basketball, the race issues involved in the Sterling case, and whether there is active discrimination against short people.  Finally, I would hand my second-grader a basketball and expect him to get it in the goal.  When he missed, I would wonder how that was possible since we had spent so much time on this one concept.  After all, we had focus, coherence, and rigor!

Were there problems in education prior to Common Core?  Of course.  The system has never been perfect.  However, in my opinion the problems tend to be more social and attitudinal than procedural.  These issues will not be eliminated with a brand new way of doing the same old thing.

With few exceptions, the teachers in the classroom are the best ones to determine the most effective way(s) to teach math to their particular students.  While I certainly have some opinions about this which I hope to share in future posts, I can’t possibly know what will work best for every class.  This should be decided by the teacher.  While these decisions are certainly made under the broad guidelines of his/her school, school district, and to a limited extent, state board of education, the details are best left to the one person who is actually interacting with the students and has a feel for their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, there are some basic standards that should be met.  But wasn’t that already being done?  Long before Common Core, didn’t we all essentially learn the same topics in elementary school?  I know very few people who didn’t learn addition in 1st grade, subtraction in 2nd grade, multiplication in 3rd grade, and division in 4th grade (or some pattern very close to that).  Politics and conspiracy theories aside, why did this need to be changed from the top down?

Yes, there are major flaws in our current system of education.  Yes, some changes are needed.  I just don’t think this “solution” is going to solve the problem.