In the first part of this blog, I gave some arguments to break down some of the anti-CC math arguments that are all over the interwebs. In this part, I won’t be doing math problems or explaining specific examples so much. I want to talk a little more about how, from what I see, this is a step in the right direction. I also want to talk about the problems I see with it and speak directly to parents about what I think they can be doing to help their kids be successful in this program. There is a lot to cover here!
They Still Teach the Math You Remember
I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions going around. The idea that Common Core REPLACES the old algorithms (like the ones I showed in part 1) and all the “tricks of the trade” with a bunch of inefficient methods to solve problems is just bogus. One of the videos I referenced in part one proclaims that they would never get out a piece of paper and draw a bunch of pictures to figure out how to add the price of two items together. So true! You never would AND Common Core would not have you do that either.
This is going to be a massive simplification, but from what I see, this is basically the difference that Common Core has made:
- THE OLD: Teach algorithms, operations, and memorization (times tables, flash cards) in the early years. Leave the graphical representation, theory, and “why” behind it all for the later years (geometry, algebra, etc).
- Common Core: Push SOME of the graphical/pictorial representation, theory, and “why” down to lower grade levels. Mix in the algorithms and “tricks” slightly later than before.
In other words, the algorithms are STILL taught. The standard just forces the theory and “why” to be taught along with it. Properties of operations seem to me to still be in the standard and well within the teacher’s freedom to teach. They just have to ALSO teach them the other parts in order to meet the standard.
Are They Too Young?
One argument I have heard is not that the number theory and pictures and such are bad but rather that the kids they are trying to teach it to are too young to learn that kind of thing. Some argue that the Common Core forces things to such a low grade level that kids cannot grasp it at that age.
I do not know if this is true or not. When I read through the standard (and I have read through the math standards up through about 3rd grade), they seem reasonable to me. However, I will grant you that I am an engineer with moderately high (everything is relative) levels of math education and I LOVED math…at least eventually.
While I don’t know if this is pushing things down to an inappropriate age or not, I do feel that it is way too early to say that.
This is Actually Not New
I actually grew up homeschooled from 4th grade through to high school graduation and we used a curriculum known as “A Beka” for that entire time. To be honest, I don’t remember how math was taught in those books (and VHS tapes), but I do remember that when my younger siblings started school my Mom switched to a program called “Math-U-See” (clearly not a grammar program). When I first saw some of the CC-related problems that my kids were bringing home, I was reminded of Math-U-See. If you take a look at their website FAQ (CLICK HERE), you see that they welcome the “concept based approach” of the CC standards because it MOSTLY aligns with how they teach math and have been for many years. They say:
As with most changes and legislation, there is a lot of debate and some disagreement. We carefully reviewed the Standards and we welcome their emphasis on conceptual understanding. For over two decades, Math-U-See has stressed the importance of conceptual understanding in mathematics education. Our curriculum focuses not only on mastery of procedural skills but also on understanding the concepts and principles which explain and support skill mastery. The Standards for Mathematical Practice, like Math-U-See’s educational philosophy, stress an approach to mathematics that is built around conceptual understanding and procedural fluency. The Standards for Mathematical Content apply this focus on procedure and understanding to specific ideas and skills.
I am also pretty confident that there are teachers out there that have been teaching math very conceptually for many years using standard text books. The difference now is that CC is forcing the conceptual knowledge to be shown in testing whereas before your teacher could have explained the concept but the testing standard only required the correct answer and a little algorithmic work to prove the answer. Good thing or bad thing? I think it’s a good thing in the long run but there are going to be some serious growing pains.
There IS a Transition Period
I understand there are a lot of kids out there that are having a hard time with this testing standard and this method. Honestly, I have no idea what the numbers are but from the uproar that I see, I am guessing the number is significant. From what I see though, there are MANY factors that could be contributing to the number of kids being negatively affected by this change OTHER THAN Common Core just being stupid. Here are the ones I can think of:
- Teachers: I am guessing that the current generation of teachers (especially those that are teaching younger kids and may not have taken higher level math) did NOT learn math this way. This is going to be a problem for a little while. Some will learn it and go all in and be great at teaching it. Others will try to teach to the standard and be disgruntled about the stupid standard. I am not pointing fingers at teachers here…especially any teachers in particular…but this is just how it works when any change happens. Some will accept it and some will only do it because they have to. This will go away as the standard becomes more accepted and new teachers come out of school with this as the norm. It is also very possible that teachers WANT to learn the new standard but they are not being given the proper training and just being told to go do it. This is not so much a problem with the standard as it is a problem with the implementation.
- Parents: As is made abundantly clear by the videos I posted in Part I, there are parents that are MORE than against this standard yet they don’t understand it’s purpose or the math itself. This is the same scenario as the teachers. Some parents will learn it and help their kids with it and others will be upset and disgruntled when they don’t understand it at first. I know because I was one of those parents 2 years ago when I first saw the “32-12=20” problem floating around. I did NOT understand it just looking at it on paper and I decided that CC was stupid. It was not until I researched the math problem and listened to the logic behind it that I changed my view and began to understand it. Thankfully, that was before my kids starting bringing home too much math homework.
- Conspiracy Theories and other Anti-CC Propaganda: You think even young kids don’t hear the buzz about CC being bad? All this negativity affects the kids, too. If their parents think it is stupid, their teacher doesn’t like it, and everything in the Facebook News Feed is a conspiracy theory, they are set up for failure all around. This does NOT help our kids to go around posting and supporting negative views without full research and backing. This is going to keep the program from moving forward and tweaking the bugs.
- Curriculum: Are the curriculum companies writing textbooks that do a good job of preparing kids for the standards? In some cases, I am sure the answer is NO.
- The Standards Are Not Right (YET): This is the one we all want to blame, and it IS partially to blame to be sure. I mentioned Math-U-See above. In their FAQ, they make it clear that their program deals with the same info in the standards but sometimes in a different order, and they quote a review that says that they do it in a “more sensible order than the standards”. Do the standards have kids learning the right stuff at the right time? We talked about this a little bit earlier. Maybe there is too much theory in the standard at too young an age. Maybe there are some problems with the standards. In fact, I would say that it is a safe bet there ARE problems with the standards, but there were problems with the previous standards and that is why many felt a change was in order.
Here is the thing: Any time a change is made, there are going to be bugs. When apple puts out a new OS, people hate it and at the very same time are defending the old OS…which they hated when it came out 6 months ago. When Facebook changes the newsfeed experience, we all hate it…and defend the old newsfeed experience…which we hated 1 year ago when it came out. This is what we do. We hate the change and want it changed back until we get used to it. Often, the people that made the change with good intentions (e.g. Facebook and it’s newsfeed) will make minor tweaks to fix things that were mistakes or were overlooked in development and then it becomes a success.
Many of the people that I see opposing Common Core (and remember, I am really only speaking to the “voodoo math” part of CC in this blog) are doing so with no suggested solution other than going back to the old standard…which currently (2012) puts the United States 31st in the world in math (slipping from 25th in 2009). (SEE RANKINGS HERE).
My proposal: Let’s focus on working on the standard and the implementation to make it better instead of trying to throw it out.
How Can We Help Our Kids?
When I got to higher level math in college, I thrived. Yet, I don’t remember learning math conceptually in my textbooks. Hmmm…what does this mean? Does this mean that I just had a “mind for math”? I don’t think so. There is a missing piece that makes it all come together, in my opinion.
When I was in the early years of community college, I would come home with algebra and calculus word problems that I was excited about and show them to my Dad. He would proceed to solve them in his head in a few seconds. They were pretty easy for me too but I didn’t realize why until I started thinking about how my Dad could solve them in his head with no X and Y variables and balancing equations with order of operations and such. My Dad was/is a builder…a general contractor and the ultimate “Do it Yourself” master. I spent many years building fences, fixing cars, building an entire house from start to finish, and various other “chores” or projects around the house with him. What I realize NOW is that he taught me conceptual math through practice over time. He taught me how to figure out how far apart to put the stiles on a railing if you had a railing that was X long and you had Y stiles. I didn’t know I was doing algebra. Many times I would have to draw it out in pictures to figure it out (this sound familiar?….18 students count by 5 to get to 90…draw 18 circles….etc). This prepared me for higher order math!!!!!! I could SEE the math in my head and it made sense. I could relate it to things I had done in real life. It wasn’t just a set of meaningless rules and operations to memorize.
The truth is that the average adult understands how to manipulate numbers in their head well enough to help the average elementary school student learn the same thing in school. You do it at the grocery store, the coffee shop, when you are quilting, when you are building a fence, when you are at work, or wherever.
So, here are a couple of things that I think YOU can do to help your kids find success in CC math programs:
- Stop being negative about it. This does nothing to help them. If you aren’t going to take them out of the program and find a private school or homeschool them a different way (which is fine), then stop calling the program stupid…it only hurts their desire to learn. Leaving them in the program, talking about it negatively, and expecting them to do well is insanity.
- Find every opportunity to give them real world problems to help them practice the concepts in different ways. When I drive in the car with my kids, I randomly ask them “Hey Maddie, I have 7 apples and I give 3 to Lucie, how many do I have now?”, “Hey Lucie, 7 is 4 and ______”. You can ask your kids what change you should be receiving at the store. You can do projects with them where they don’t even know they are doing math.
- Read the standards for the grade level your kids are in right now. Here is the link to the math standards: CLICK HERE. If you know what your kids are supposed to know, you can help them better.
- Be super proactive and learn it yourself! You can set up a “teacher” account for free at LearnZillion and get video lessons and lesson plans that teach to the standard. You may just find that you actually like math if you stick with it. 😉 You may find yourself understanding numbers better and enjoying it. Don’t knock it until you try it. Remember, it’s like that new FB newsfeed that you hate now…you will love it in a month or so.
In summary, I think there are problems with the way the program has been rolled out, there are possible problems with the order and content of the standards themselves, and there is GOING TO BE a bumpy transition between the old and new. However, I believe the new math standards ARE a step in the right direction. They are not perfect, they may not be completely based on pure motives (I don’t know), and they may be causing major issues for some students.
In my kid’s school, they have done an excellent job of explaining it to the parents and getting them to participate in it. The teachers seem to be on board with it and well-trained. It seems to be going quite well! This article from someone in DC seems to say the same thing (ARTICLE HERE). Of course, the school my kids go to (it is a public school) is consistently ranked highest in the county and the school mentioned in the article in DC is a highly ranked school as well. I don’t know what is going on in more troubled areas or schools that had consistent issues with test scores already. I imagine it is as one would expect….NOT GOOD. I think the fact that it is going well at highly ranked schools is a GOOD sign though. No?
My plan is to work with the system for as long as my kids are in it. If there is a problem with implementation at our school, I plan to get involved with it. I hope this blog helps some who were misinformed about the common core math to buy in a little more and work with it to improve it and to improve the math proficiency in our nation.
Thanks for reading.