Although Common Core State Standards were adopted in Massachusetts in 2010, the topic is still a lightening rod for impassioned critique and opinion. There is even an initiative, “End Common Core MA”, to place the increasingly controversial academic benchmarks on the 2016 state ballot, the first time voters would decide whether to keep the K-12 math and reading standards.
But for the parents of a young child who is learning math in a way that bears little resemblance to the way they were taught, there is a pressing issue that is more personal than political: how do I help my child with his math homework when I don’t understand it myself?
What exactly are math teachers teaching these children and how is it so different from how their parents were taught the same subject in the past?
In a nutshell, Common Core Standards for Mathematics emphasize the importance of building conceptual understanding before requiring students to memorize facts. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for parents is the fact that Common Core Standards have also replaced much of the language they learned to describe mathematical functions with new words. Instead of “reducing” fractions, students now “simplify.” Instead of “borrowing” or “carrying”, students now “regroup” or “trade.” Doing calculations in one’s head is encouraged; spitting out the right answer without being to explain how you got it is not.
Pamela Halpern, Associate Professor at Salem State University in the Education Department, teaches math methods courses to students who will become elementary and middle school teachers. In the past, students learned in a directed, structured, “here’s what you do, here’s how you do it, here’s an example, now go do it” way. “We weren’t ever taught why we were doing what we were doing and what it meant,” Halpern said, adding, “Neither teacher nor student knew or cared what it meant as long as we got the right answer.”
While she is a proponent of Common Core Standards, she emphasizes to her classes that it is part of their ongoing responsibility to help parents understand how the standards translate into the day to day math work their children do at school.
“We in education do a disservice to parents and to ourselves by not letting parents in and educating them as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and then actually having them do some of the work that their children are doing in class. We need to explain why we’re teaching what we’re teaching,” she said.
These days, there is a lot more talking during math classes because Common Core emphasizes that students actually understand the problem and persevere in solving it. They are encouraged to be curious, to have a variety of ways to solve each problem, and to be able to justify their arguments and critique the reasoning of others. “Math is about more than calculating. There are so many different ways to solve a problem and think about it, and so when students share their thinking, it opens up new ways of thinking for all students,” Halpern said.
Arthur Unobskey, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Gloucester Public Schools, believes that Common Core math standards are a step in the right direction. “We need to teach differently in order to build an understanding of relationships that force students to connect different ideas they have learned, rather than just solve the problem. Our kids have not been able to compete with kids from other parts of the world because we don’t understand what is going on in a mathematics problem; we don’t understand how to apply our skills to new situations,” he said.
Unobskey admits it is an ongoing challenge to help parents understand the new ways math is being taught. Principals and teachers take time to explain the curriculum at school functions, such as Meet the Teacher nights, and teachers discuss it in newsletters, parent conferences and letters sent home. Marguerite Ruiz, Superintendent of Salem Public Schools, said that her district focuses its efforts at the school level through Math Nights and Open Houses. Salem has also invested in Math Coaches, teachers who have expertise and often certification in math, to plan these events and to serve as leaders and coaches of teachers at schools.
According to Halpern, this may not be enough. She tells her students that parent math nights are essential and should be held at least once every quarter. “Parents don’t know. I think if we clued them in, they’d be on board with the way we’re teaching things. We can’t expect them to know how to do it if they’ve never seen it before,” she said.
Christen Nine, a Gordon College alumna and high school math teacher, believes all parents want to and should feel confident in their ability to interact with elementary children’s homework. While there are plenty of resources for teachers, she felt they lacked the clear, practical examples that parents care about. To fill their need for a politically neutral, educationally practical guide, she recently published a book titled, “A Parent’s Survival Guide to Common Core Math: Grades K-5”.
“The goal of this project was to provide a resource that would bridge the gap between the older teaching methodologies and the newer ones. That gap is much easier to fill than parents might think, and just as a good math teacher aims to reduce math anxiety in their students to promote quality learning, this book aims to alleviate confusion and frustration related to Common Core Standards in order to build up parents’ confidence to be informed advocates in their child’s math education,” Nine said.
The Common Core Standards have fans among most educators and administrators. “Anything that increases the rigor of instruction for children I am always going to be in favor of,” said Ruiz, noting that the bigger challenge in her district is building the capacity of teachers to be able to teach to that level. “Teachers need to be really knowledgeable and thoughtful about their implementation of these standards,” she said.
Unobskey, who holds a doctorate in math education, is a strong advocate for Common Core standards. “As it is implemented more and more effectively, students will uncover connections that show how math describes the world, and they will become more motivated to learn, and less afraid of math. Ultimately, our nation’s lack of comfort with math, I believe, is what holds our children back,” he said.
So why are citizen groups like “End Common Core MA” trying to do away with something that professional educators support?
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Nine. “Maybe we didn’t do a good PR job for Common Core Standards.” She lamented the fact that “End Common Core MA” and groups like it either intentionally or unintentionally spread this misinformation. “It concerns me, as an educator, that decisions could be made from someone’s blog post or the most recent viral photo that’s going around Facebook,” she said.
For information about Common Core Standards, go to corestandards.org. To order Nine’s book, go to amazon.com.