Schools Teach Common-Core Math to Two Generations

By Liana Loewus — December 02, 2014 9 min read
Saveya Howleft and her uncle, Nick Scott, learn about common-core math at Old Orchard Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio.
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Schools around the country are holding math nights, sending letters home, and posting videos on their websites to teach parents about the Common Core State Standards for mathematics, which require students to use calculation methods that many parents never learned.

The result is that initially frustrated parents, once they fully grasp the new strategies, often end up convinced they’re a good way to learn, educators and parents here and in other districts say.

But getting to that point can be a tough road, experts say, considering the many highly publicized negative portrayals of the common standards.

The TV and radio commentator Glenn Beck held simulcasts in 700 movie theaters over the summer to call on citizens to lobby against the common core, and the comedians Stephen Colbert and Louis C.K. have taken shots at the math standards. (The latter went on a Twitter tirade in April about how his children used to love math, but “now it makes them cry.”)

Some policymakers, meanwhile, such as Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, have claimed the standards—whose adoption the Obama administration encouraged with financial incentives to states—are a case of federal overreach.

The impending common-core-aligned tests have also complicated the public relations landscape. Educators and parents alike are worried about the consequences of the new assessments, which are expected to be tougher than previous state tests when they become operational next spring.

Teaching Parents

For many parents, though, questions about the math first come to light when they sit down to help their children with homework.

Jennifer Bonds, a parent at Old Orchard Elementary School in north-central Toledo, said she was watching her 3rd grader do math problems last year, “and I was like, wait a minute, I don’t understand what you’re doing!” The boy was calculating multi-digit addition and subtraction starting from the tens or hundreds place, and working down to the ones.

Janasia Lanier-Payne, a 1st grader, uses manipulatives to work out a math problem on the board for her class at Old Orchard Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio.

“I said, ‘You can’t do math from left to right,’ ” Ms. Bonds said.

She soon found out that, actually, he could. By attending parent math days held last year and this year at the school, Ms. Bonds learned that the common standards encourage students to add and subtract in a variety of ways other than the vertical carry-and-borrow methods she was taught, including by separating the tens and the ones.

“It makes it look more difficult than it actually is,” she said of the alternative method of adding.

At the school’s most recent parent math day, held Nov. 11, about a dozen parents gathered around library tables to practice common-core strategies such as “decomposing,” or breaking numbers into parts that are easier to work with, and “making 10,” or finding combinations of numbers that add up to 10 to solve addition and subtraction problems.

“Our mind thinks about tens quickly,” Gary Harvey, the math coach at Old Orchard, explained to the group. “It’s just a natural way of putting things together.” So, for instance, when adding 8 and 4, students might first add 8 and 2 to get to 10. Then they would tack on the extra 2.

Nick Scott, whose niece and nephew attend Old Orchard, seemed skeptical at first. As the presenters were rehashing the traditional method for addition, he muttered, “But it worked.”

The vertical carry-the-one method does work, responded Denise Brown, a math-support teacher for the 23,000-student Toledo school system, who was presenting. But with the common-core methods, which emphasize number relationships and place value in the early grades, students will “do better in the higher levels,” she predicted.

“They’re going to have a better understanding of what the math all means,” Ms. Brown said.

In an interview toward the end of the session, Mr. Scott chuckled at himself. “Oh, I’m definitely OK with [the new approach]. I think it will benefit her,” he said of his niece, a 2nd grader. “The benefit is breaking the numbers down—instead of using the shortcuts and tricks we used—and seeing the bigger picture. I’ll walk out of here with a different opinion, surely.”

Fear of the Unknown

Anxiety among parents about nontraditional math strategies is nothing new. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released a new set of standards that emphasized problem-solving and reasoning over calculation drills, a shift that prompted similar pushback. And the New Math movement of the 1960s, financed by federal money after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, also fueled controversy.

“Any time a district moves to building more conceptual understanding into their mathematics program, and students are coming home with either homework that looks unfamiliar or ... with different computational methods than parents have seen before, there’s always going to be questions,” said Diane J. Briars, the president of the NCTM.

“It happened before common core with me,” said Yvonne Johnson, the former president of the Delaware PTA and an advocacy chair for the group. When her daughter’s elementary school began using a new math textbook, she said, “I could never help my daughter with homework.”

A 2005 meta-analysis by William H. Jeynes, an education professor at California State University, Long Beach, for the Harvard Family Research Project found that parental involvement with homework in general is associated with higher student achievement.

However, a more recent study by Keith Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke University, found that parent help with homework is not correlated with higher test scores—and, in fact, has a negative correlation with test scores in middle school and beyond.

Because more than 40 states are implementing the common core, negative hype about the “new” way of doing math has had a wide reach.

Last spring, for instance, a frustrated father’s letter to the teacher about a supposedly common-core-aligned math problem was posted to Facebook and went viral. “I have a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. ... Even I cannot explain the common-core mathematics approach,” the father, Jeff Severt, wrote. (A lead writer for the standards later said the problem in question was a bad representation of the common core.)

Such portrayals of the common core can be tough to combat, according to Penny Gennuso, a math and science academic specialist in Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish district.

“Social media has amplified the whole issue,” she said. “We did have some angry parents, and some parents just wanting to know more—'Why are we changing? Why is this different than when I learned it?’ ”

Meanwhile, in the state’s St. Tammany Parish district, the school board recently voted to phase out Eureka Math, a curriculum designed for the common core, after hearing from some parents and board members that the lessons were too complicated.

Lynne Munson, the president of the Washington-based publishing company Common Core Inc., which developed Eureka, said the St. Tammany action resulted from “a vocal minority there who’s politicizing something that shouldn’t be politicized.” The common core has been the center of a heated political battle in Louisiana—Gov. Jindal originally supported the standards but later came out strongly against them, even filing a lawsuit over them accusing the federal government of intrusion, while the state schools superintendent has been a steadfast proponent.

Nicole Lawson, left, and her daughter, Qui'shia Floyd, attend a parent math session held after school last month at Old Orchard. As they implement common-core math standards, schools around the country are hosting such events to familiarize parents with calculation methods and concepts that may be different from those they learned in elementary school.

The “anti feeling” about the common core tends to get played up in the news media, said Alice J. Gill, the senior associate director in the educational issues department at the American Federation of Teachers, in Washington.

“I think that when parents are exposed and included and have an understanding of what this is,” she said of the initiative, “they’re far less upset than just not knowing.”

Outreach Efforts

Schools and districts have taken multipronged approaches to getting the word out to parents about how the common-core standards will change math instruction.

The 1,500-student Upper Dublin school district in Pennsylvania,about 20 miles north of Philadelphia, held family math nights at each of its elementary schools last year. About 700 parents attended in total, said Janet Blenheim, the math coach there.

The district also sent letters to parents about common-core math, acknowledging that “homework might initially be stressful,” and produced a video describing the curricular changes.

In Louisiana, the Lafayette Parish district, which has 30,000 students, has held parent nights and posted detailed parent math guides for each grade level on its website. Teachers also send home one- to two-page newsletters for each new unit students are doing in math class.

“We recognize that we need our parents in order to be able to do this,” said Ms. Gennuso. “When you have parents say, ‘I can’t help them, but I want to and I have a college degree,’ we want to help them.” Outside organizations are trying to help with such communication efforts.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents 67 big-city districts, published parent “road maps” to common-core math on its website. The AFT’s ShareMyLesson, the National PTA, the Teaching Channel, LearnZillion, and individual curriculum providers have all posted parent resources for learning about the math standards online, too.

A recent Gallup poll showed that the more experience teachers have had with the standards, the more they tend to like them. In many cases, the same pattern seems to be playing out with parents, educators said.

Ms. Briars of the Reston, Va.-based NCTM, who has led math workshops for parents, said parents are “very receptive” when they learn to do the math themselves.This year, “I’m not getting the calls [from teachers] that say, ‘I need you to come out and help me defend what I’m doing,’ ” said

Ms. Gennuso, of Lafayette Parish, which started slowly implementing the standards four years ago.

Ed Hughes, who attended the Old Orchard Elementary parent session here in Toledo, said that while it’s not the way he learned, the addition and subtraction methods “make sense.”

“It’s expanding [students’] overall thinking, and showing there’s more than one way to do it,” he said. Based on what he’s learned about the standards over the past couple of years, he said, “I think it’s definitely helped my son.”

Ms. Bonds, his fellow Old Orchard parent, said she wishes she’d learned through common-core methods herself.

“To me, it’s still a little confusing, but when they’re breaking it down in their heads, they’re getting it a lot faster than I can,” she said of her children.

The big question now is whether the buy-in that districts have procured will remain once testing starts later this school year.

“I can’t imagine that anybody would disagree that we should have standards that are rigorous and preparing our students to go to college,” Ms. Johnson of the Delaware PTA said. But the new assessments, which many parents worry will be stressful for students and teachers, are “clouding things,” she said. “We need to keep the assessments separate from the standards.”

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Parents Get Schooled on New Math Standards


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