Common Core Controversy
Common core: two words that elicit high emotions in both parents and educators. I am almost scared to write them here.
I have seen the many Common Core critics on Facebook, I have struggled to understand how to solve math problems using the Common Core way and I am the parent of 5 children about to be indoctrinated in the method. But I refuse to join the hysteria and jump on the anti-Common Core train without first researching and determining for myself if Common Core is really evil incarnate.
What is Common Core? According to Wikipedia, “The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an education initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade.” The initiative stemmed from the realization that even though kids were receiving high school diplomas, they still had not gained the education they needed to start directly in career-oriented jobs or be successful in college. Basically, our old education system wasn’t keeping up with the new job demands. The hopes were that by standardizing educational goals, we could better prepare our kids for life “in the real world.”
Sounds pretty good, right? Wouldn’t we all want that for our kids? So where does the controversy lie?
Political controversy. Not surprisingly, Common Core has entered the political battlefield. While proponents argue that a national standard will equalize education between states, critics fear a national curriculum and protest that this is the beginning of a federal take-over of the education system. Others suggest that these changes will do little to fix a deeply ingrained problem, take initiative away from teachers, offer only a “one size fits all” program that won’t be adaptable to all students and are afraid to try a program that hasn’t been “field-tested.” (and how is it supposed to be tested without implementing it?)
I am happy to let the politicians continue to debate the theory behind Common Core, but right now, parents are dealing with implementation of new programs, and they are struggling to understand the benefits of the program. Most of this stems from the “new math” program.
Common Core math. The Common Core standards lay out the mathematical content that should be taught at each grade level. For example, K-5 students should be taught:
- Operations and Algebraic Thinking;
- Number and Operations in Base 10;
- Measurement and Data;
Kindergarten also includes Counting and Cardinality while grades 3 to 5 also include Number and Operations–Fractions.
It is up to each state to adopt a teaching program, choose the books that will be used, and determine the order in which each of these topics will be taught.
It doesn’t sound so scary, does it?
But then we’ve all seen the examples of “Common Core math” floating around the internet in which a seemingly simple math problem is turned into an arduous, mind-bending multi-step process.
I am going to borrow an example a friend posted on Facebook. The problem is to divide 75 by 3. I can use my handy Boogie Board to solve the problem the way I learned in school:
or I can, with great difficulty, figure out how to solve the problem using the “new math” which tells you to work with numbers that are “easier”, in this case, using 10’s to help you solve the problem:
It seems kind of crazy when you look at this one problem.
However, the other day I was reading a blog from a math teacher who suggested this problem: You walk into a store and want to buy something that is $4.30 and you only have a $20 bill. How much change will you get back?
In your head you are going to realize that you need 70 cents to make $5, and then 15 more to make $20, so the answer is $15.70.
That’s the “new math” folks.
So before we keep getting our panties in a bunch over this, let’s make sure we are keeping things in perspective and are worrying about the right things.
First I would suggest some perspective:
It looks ridiculous. Yes, some of the examples that are floating around the internet take simple problems and break them into >5 step solutions. These isolated problems look absolutely ridiculous on paper. I think what we have to remember is that we are teaching our children a way to think about numbers through grouping and using easy whole numbers. Solving problems this way is going to allow kids to solve problems in their heads much quicker (I always need a pen and paper if a problem involves 2 digits or more).
Don’t reject something just because it is hard for you. My sons love Minecraft. They wanted to add new texture packs and mods to change their environments. I am
somewhat totally inept when it comes to these things, but it was important to them. So I watched YouTube videos and read instructions and literally spent hours practicing until I could show them how to do it. Why shouldn’t I put the same effort into their education? And honestly, once I got past the OMG feeling, I found it fun to try to solve their math problems using a new method.
The old way isn’t going to disappear. Most teachers I have talked to have confirmed that kids are going to learn multiple ways to solve math problems, including the old way and the new way. I think the more tools kids have available to them, the better off they are.
Here are the things I worry about with the new Common Core standards:
New standards mean more testing. I think our kids (and teachers) waste too much of their time on standardized tests. Massachusetts is already gearing up for a new test. The test they are implementing requires assessments throughout out the course followed by end of year tests (a friend pointed out to me that the final test is given even before all the material has been taught). I got letters from our school district a couple of weeks ago that students in 2 of my kids’ grades will be given a pilot test to “test the test”. Results are not even going to be reported to parents.
Our school system is trying a new curriculum this year and my first grader was tested every 2 weeks for the math concepts they were learning. Her teacher told me that the kids were doing poorly on the tests and, as a group, the first grade teachers felt the tests were inappropriate.
Everything is accelerated. We are creating a generation of kids that have to play catch-up. As the new standards are being thrust upon our kids, there is going to be a knowledge gap. Sixth-graders are suddenly being taught concepts traditionally taught in the eighth grade. My daughter’s first grade teacher said kids weren’t able to retain what they were learning because they only had one day to learn a concept before moving on to the next one.
In addition to creating gaps in their knowledge, there are some math concepts that kids are not developmentally mature enough to comprehend until they get older. For example, as explained in this article, the average child cannot understand the concept behind addition and subtraction until they are 5.5-6 years old.
There is less room for the outliers and the creativity needed to keep them engaged. With pressure to perform to more standards and strict timelines for teaching the content, teachers are going to have less time to spend on the kids that fall on the outskirts of the bell curve of aptitude. This includes the kids that need extra help in school and those that excel above their peers.
Younger kids need to play to learn. Educational studies confirm that younger kids develop comprehensive language skills better through play than by rote instruction. By asking our kids to learn to a standard at younger and younger ages, we are taking that play time away from them.
Before I started writing this, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Common Core, but I think I do now. It’s not wrong to set educational goals for our children. In fact, we should challenge our kids and expect them to have a strong core of basic knowledge. We shouldn’t be afraid of using multiple strategies to teach our kids, even if it isn’t what we are comfortable with.
But we need to look carefully at how we are implementing these changes and make sure they are age appropriate. We need to decide if we are going to give teachers the room to teach without strangling them and our kids with assessment tests to make sure they are doing a good job.
I don’t think the answer lies in thrusting inappropriate knowledge on our kids at younger and younger ages; it should be about teaching quality, not quantity.