Nothing unites the nation like an anti-Common Core math meme. Some of these memes actually pre-date the Common Core State Standards, like the one here.
This meme was once a form of self-deprecating humor posted by people (like myself) who do not excel in mathematics. The same meme floats around these days with the words “Common Core Math” replacing “How I see math word problems.” Its intent now is to conflate bad word problems with the Common Core State Standards. (Funny story, though—I went to grade school in the 70s and 80s, and I remember bad word problems being fairly rampant then, too.)
Then there are other [some real, some phony] memes of bad math questions that [some real, some phony] teacher gave a student to complete. They include problems like this one
and this one.
These problems typically appear on social media with a high level of parental outrage and public disdain for “whatever the hell it is they’re teaching our kids these days.”
With any school reform issue at any point in history, pushback from all sides is usually immediate and often hostile. Although most teachers and parents vocalize wanting children to have a better education than they themselves had, in my experience, we are often most comfortable with educational practices that mirror the ones from our past. Many of those old practices are not in the best interests of children these days, so getting any real reform to “stick” is tough.
One factor that causes education reforms (even good ones) to go by the wayside is this public reaction to change in schools. The public tends to believe Facebook memes and articles from websites with names like “stupidschoolpolicy.com” are accurate, and many school systems tend not to give the public good information about exactly which reforms are being implemented and why, and that contributes to the problem. Even when a system actively seeks to educate the public about reforms (as my school system has), those gatherings are typically poorly attended and are sometimes hijacked by audience members who do not come to understand something new but rather come with a political agenda to assert.
Thus, the public is often uniformed (in the case of the Common Core standards, dangerously misinformed), gets its collective back up, and an approach to schooling that differs from what adults experienced as children is often viewed as ridiculous and sometimes even sinister.
The reason for the popularity of these memes (and for citizens’ willingness to repost them over and over without checking their veracity) is, I think, twofold and has very little to do with any specific reform and more to do with psychology.
First, parents do not like to feel like idiots when helping their children with homework. I know this feeling. It is an old friend of mine. It is the feeling in my gut of utter stupidity and uselessness that overcame me whenever my sons asked me for math help on any assignment after the fourth grade. “Sorry, honey. You need to ask Daddy that one. Got any writing homework? Mommy knows writing! And social studies! And science! But not math. And not the science with the math in it. But the other stuff? Yay!”
Curriculum reform for students is also curriculum reform for the public. If we are asking students to look at content through a new lens, then we are asking their parents to look at it with a new lens, too. The public doesn’t always like that because the new lens exposes what they themselves do not remember or, more critically, what they do not understand. A central philosophical tenet of “Common Core math” is that students learn to think like mathematicians—that they understand numbers and numerical concepts so well that they can manipulate numbers in various ways in various situations. It is a deeper conceptual understanding of mathematics than we have typically taught in schools, and my generation tends to be lousy at it.
You see, the reason I can’t help my sons with their math homework is not because I failed math. I passed math, sometimes just barely, but I survived. Years after my school days, I even scored in the 90th percentiles on my math Praxis test (yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, but I did study very hard, so there you go, kids: studying works!).
I know how to pass math tests. I know the basic terms, and I know the procedures for calculating numbers, solving equations, and even a little graphing. But I do not understand math. I cannot think about numbers in the way that someone like Matt Damon’s character does in Good Will Hunting. I do not have what my elementary teacher colleagues term “number sense.”
I cannot manipulate data easily, and I cannot play with numbers in a way that would allow me to create math problems, not even word problems (despite the fact that, as an English teacher, words are presumably my bread and butter). Number sense is the depth with which students need to understand numbers in the technology-based world we have created for them, and I am an elderly child left behind.
Understanding, it turns out, matters.
Thus, the second reason that these memes gain such a wide audience is the key one: In our society, we do not value process as much as we value product. We want a good result; we don’t necessarily care how that result happened. Both of my sons have a great deal of number sense (thank you, dear husband, for your DNA). They can solve complex math problems in their heads, and they can get the right answer often without having to write anything down. Thus, “show your work” directions for them in school were agony. “But I got the right answer. Why do I have to show her my work?” Oy, the number of times we had that conversation when Mommy just wanted to watch Oprah…
The reason we need to see a student’s work—the reason that a correct answer is not enough—is because we cannot see inside a student’s brain. We don’t know what he or she is thinking unless the student tells us or shows us what’s going on in there. We don’t always need to see a perfect essay or a correct math answer: we need to know what kind of process got the student to that point.
- If he or she got the wrong answer, we can look to his or her process to see which parts the student understands and which parts require reteaching.
- If he or she got the right answer and used a different process, we can see what we can learn from the student’s way that can help us in teaching others or if the student's way has pitfalls if he or she uses it in other situations.
By examining the student’s process, the teacher can see how well the student understands. The technological world in which our kids live demands that they value process as much as product even if the adults in their lives do not.
Academic problems these days [should] emphasize different ways of solving the problem so that students are compelled to think about concepts in more than one way. Those multiple modes show how well the student understands content, not just how well the kid can compute numbers. If you want your child to be more than a machine, then that intellectual flexibility is important: your child can do more than compute; he or she can understand a concept like computation and how to apply it in various contexts.
One Saturday each month, I coach our county’s candidates for National Board Certification. The teachers who undertake that process are typically overachievers, “teaching ninjas.” My elementary colleagues in those sessions have spoken about how tough implementing the Common Core math curriculum has been but also how amazing the results have been, specifically in that area of number sense. Our younger kids (with their fabulously young and open minds) are becoming more flexible and skillful thinkers about mathematics. Mommy and Daddy may feel stupid, but the kids get it. This is a good thing.
You can’t multiply the way the child’s homework directions are asking? That’s OK. Your child is learning to flex his or her math muscles in a way that you were never asked to flex yours. Instead of being angry at the question, support the child in attempting to flex those muscles just as you would support your child in training for an athletic feat that your ancient carcass can’t undertake either. Just because you don’t know how to do it does not mean that the teacher is wrong to ask your child to do it. The truth is, fellow adults, we’re not stupid; we’re old. But just because we’re old does not mean that we have to be rigid in our thinking.
True, some problems are just bad questions written by a shady textbook company or by a teacher struggling to think about the content in ways her own education never asked her to think decades ago. But we can forgive that. That’s not really what bothers us. What bothers us is making ourselves intellectually vulnerable enough to admit “Hey, I did it, but I didn’t understand it” or “I don’t know, honey. I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Let’s ask your teacher to help us both.”
That vulnerability is the beginning of real reform. That vulnerability is the start of truly helping our kids to do better in school. That vulnerability is the sign that we are finally moving forward in making the next generation better than the last.
- Process matters.
- Understanding matters.
- Knowing why you are doing something matters.
So here they are, the Common Core State Standards for Math. As with the English standards, here is the lens through which I hope you evaluate them:
1. Is there anything on this list that you do not want children to be able to do by the time they graduate from high school?
2. Is there anything here that makes children less likely to follow the values their parents have instilled in them at home?
3. When the Angry Ones say that these standards are dangerous, should be subject to a legislative vote, and need to go, which ones are they referring to? Which ones are scary?
[A word about organization: Visit the Common Core website to see the math standards in all of their glory. They are numerous and lengthy. What I am posting here are the Standards of Mathematical Practice, the overarching math philosophy that permeates the individual standards for each grade level and for each mathematical subject area (e.g., algebra, geometry, and so forth). This is a different organizational structure than the one that the English standard writers used, but as anyone will tell you: math isn’t English. They’re still easy enough to read and follow.]
Congratulations! You have now read the heart of the Common Core State Standards document. Is it what you thought it would be? Is it dangerous to children in any way? Have you been misled by candidates for the Board of Education who tried to make you think it was different than it is? Are they still trying to convince you that this curricular concern is a campaign issue for Board of Education members when it is not something that board members control?
Vote for people who do not try to mislead the public, who know what they're talking about, and who know the actual duties of a member of the Board of Education.
Full Disclosure: Any post about the current election season will reiterate my earlier disclosure: I support Jim Fazzino for the Elkton seat on Cecil County Board of Education, and my husband is his campaign treasurer. I additionally support William Manlove for the Chesapeake City seat on the Board of Education. As you make choices this campaign season, evaluate everyone’s agenda in this situation and determine for yourselves who is giving you factual information and whom you believe to be trustworthy.