Several days ago, a parent posted a photo of a check he had made out to his child’s school with symbols instead of written numbers. His apparent objective was to show his frustration over how ridiculous he feels the Common Core math standards are, and his post worked, renewing yet again a heated online debate over this controversy. Transfixed, I read through hours and hours of comments and news articles, trying to get a better understanding of what exactly are people’s main issues with the standards. Many parents are angry, railing against the policy, claiming frustration and tears over homework and threatening to remove their children from public schools. But it’s this seeming hysteria that tends to give me pause. Why and what exactly is causing all this fury?
In very short form, the Common Core is a set of standards that defines what a student should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. What it doesn’t do is specifically state the method that must be used to teach, and is instead leaving that up to schools and teachers at the state and local government level. So there goes one of the arguments I came across in which many feel that federal government should not control education. This policy still provides the autonomy in flexibility and creativity in how best to teach students to those who actually have to teach it. Although why some decry this as “federal curriculum” as if that’s such a terrible thing is beyond me anyway. I struggled to find a school in which to enroll my child and during my search, all I kept thinking was “It shouldn’t be this hard. Every school ought to be just as good as the other.” And if for any reason we ever had to pick up and move to a new state, my child ought to be able to set foot in any school in the country and be able to pick up exactly where she left off. If having a federally governed educational set of standards for all states to follow would be the only way to ensure that, then why exactly is that not a favorable idea?
While the Common Core standards issue guidelines across multiple subjects, it is math that appears to rankle parents most. I’m still trying to understand this, too. For so long, we’ve ballyhooed about how far our students lag behind other nations, such as students in Singapore whom consistently rank the highest of all nations in math test scores. One facet of the method they exercise, dubbed by the U.S. as Singapore Math, uses greater detail and pictorial representations to solve math equations. Guess what new approach that sounds very similar to? You guessed it, Common Core! So these “silly symbols, dots and circles” that have many parents so upset are spot on to the methods used by arguably the very best math students in the world. Maybe I’m by myself on this one, but I fail to see the problem in that (pun intended)!
Now, I will acknowledge that when first looking at such an example as the above photo, I am also thoroughly confused. This picture makes no sense to me just by viewing it, and indeed it does seem much longer, convoluted, and unnecessary. This appears to be where many parents just stop and immediately become angry. And at this point, it would make complete sense that if you’re angry and frustrated about what you’re viewing (and not understanding), that it would 100% translate over to your child and also make them tense and frustrated, perhaps leading to tears and and meltdowns over homework. And here is where I take a moment to think this through a little more…
Why would I expect that this should immediately make sense to me the first time viewing it without any teacher-led instruction or explanation? I haven’t actually been taught this method, so of course it looks like gibberish to me. But logic would lead me to believe, that if this is work being given to my first-grader, then it must be something a first-grader is quite capable of understanding. I can’t imagine that our schools are in the business of just throwing numbers and concepts out there that are a) way above the student’s level of learning and b) that are absolutely and completely unhelpful and useless. So there must be a point to this; there must be a reason here WHY reformers believe this to be a better, easier way. And perhaps if I take advantage of the many workshops most schools have provided that teach the new method to parents and explain its logic then I, too, will actually understand it. How many of these parents that are all ready to burn reformers at the stake have actually attended the workshops and/or sought detailed explanations of the method from their principals and teachers first?
Yes, this method might make a simple arithmetic problem longer in the short run, but in the long run, it ultimately should help one solve harder math equations much more easily and quickly. That certainly seems like a justifiable pay-off to me. If you’ve always been able to do math in your head or if the “old way” has always worked for you, then truly, that is great. But for the many students (like me) that struggled greatly with math, I welcome any possibility of simplifying, solving and understanding the same problem. I don’t see how this would slow or “dumb down” the class for the ones that “already get it”, because they’re still learning the same math you and I learned, they’re just now likely having to “show” more of how they got the answer. And why exactly is that such a bad thing? I had plenty of math teachers that asked us to “show our work” so this isn’t even an entirely new concept, it’s just giving students an additional (and for some, possibly an easier-to-understand) method of doing so! With any other subject, one can’t expect to be able to simply spout information without any supporting facts. When you state a hypothesis in biology class, you record the steps of the scientific method to explain how you arrived at your conclusion. When you take a position on a written thesis, you include footnotes and a bibliography of your sources. In other words, you show your work. Why should math be any different?
Perhaps it’s easier for me to take this approach as my child is just entering the school system. This will (potentially) be all that she’ll know and I’ll get to learn all of this right along with her. I can certainly understand how this may be more frustrating for older students that are just now having to learn a new way of doing things. But I have much faith that kids are pretty adaptive and resilient. It tends to be the parents that are the ones so resistant to change. To go online and see the numbers of parents that are conceivably dismissing these standards without even first making sure they understand what the new standards mean before making up their minds, well, it’s rather scary knowing they could potentially succeed in pressuring Congress to repeal the policy before it has even had a chance to be successful. It just doesn’t seem right that a snap judgment is being made based off what they think or may have simply seen, not on what they 100% have actually learned and truly understand. To develop a strong critical-thinking aptitude and make decisions and arrive at conclusions based on logic and fact are precisely the skills in which the Core standards are pushing for our students to become better. And that, to me, seems most worthwhile of giving a fair chance.