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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling
Posted: Jul 1, 2014 5:01 PM
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From The New York Times, Sunday, June 29, 2014. See
Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling

By Motoko Rich

GREENWELL SPRINGS, La. - Rebekah and Kevin Nelams moved to their
modest brick home in this suburb of Baton Rouge seven years ago
because it has one of the top-performing public school districts in
the state. But starting this fall, Ms. Nelams plans to home-school
the couple's four elementary-age children.

The main reason: the methods that are being used for teaching math
under the Common Core, a set of academic standards adopted by more
than 40 states.

Ms. Nelams said she did not recognize the approaches her children,
ages 7 to 10, were being asked to use on math work sheets. They were
frustrated by the pictures, dots and sheer number of steps needed to
solve some problems. Her husband, who is a pipe designer for
petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a
YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his
division homework.

"They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,"
Ms. Nelams said. "But it just looks tedious."

Across the country, parents who once conceded that their homework
expertise petered out by high school trigonometry are now feeling
helpless when confronted with first-grade work sheets. Stoked by
viral postings online that ridicule math homework in which students
are asked to critique a phantom child's thinking or engage in
numerous steps, along with mockery from comedians including Louis C.
K. and Stephen Colbert, these parents are adding to an increasingly
fierce political debate about whether the Common Core is another way
in which Washington is taking over people's lives. [See and ]

In Louisiana, the dispute intensified this month when Gov. Bobby
Jindal said he wanted to withdraw the state from the Common Core,
although others questioned his authority to do so. Already, the
legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have repealed
the Common Core standards, and for many candidates running for
political office, their views on the standards have become crucial
election issues.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children
understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching
them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being
asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their

This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers
who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of
teaching math have yielded lackluster results. In global tests,
American students lag behind children in several Asian countries and
some European nations, and the proportion of students achieving
advanced levels is low. Common Core slims down curriculums so that
students can spend more time grasping specific mathematical concepts.

The guidelines are based on research that shows that students taught
conceptually retain the math they learn. [See
]And many longtime math teachers, including those in organizations
like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National
Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, have championed the standards.

"I taught math very much like the Common Core for many years," said
Linda M. Gojak, the former president of the National Council of
Teachers of Math. "When parents would question it, my response was
'Just hang in there with me,' and at the end of the year they would
come and say this was the best year their kids had in math."

But for parents, the transition has been hard. Moreover, textbooks
and other materials have not yet caught up with the new standards,
and educators unaccustomed to learning or teaching more conceptually
are sometimes getting tongue-tied when explaining new methodologies.

"It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look
good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of
highly skilled experts," said Frederick M. Hess, the director of
education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, "and
then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to
classrooms and textbooks."

Even supporters of the Common Core say changes are being pushed too
quickly. Rushing to institute a new math curriculum does not make
sense if you are "planning to get the job done in a rational way,"
said Phil Daro, one of three principal writers of the Common Core
math standards.

Tensions over the Common Core have been heightened because the
standards are tied to new standardized tests being introduced in many
states. Teachers are fretting that their performance ratings will
increasingly depend on how their students perform on these tests.

While several states have postponed the consequences of test results
on teacher evaluations, many educators feel the pressure.

"Imagine, if you will, if the state government came down to Detroit
and said in six weeks you have to be 100 percent metric," said
Jonathan Marceau, a fourth-grade teacher in Shelby Township, Mich., a
northern suburb of Detroit, who is worried that some algebraic and
geometric concepts are now being introduced too early for children to

"Detroit says, 'Great, we can do that, but we have to retool, retrain
and make sure people have gone through the growth curve on this
thing, and it will probably take more than six weeks,' " he said.
"The government says, 'Tough, we're not going to give you any manual
or tools for this transition, but if anybody makes a car with a
defect, they are going to get fired.' "

Some educators said that with the Common Core's focus on questioning
lines of reasoning and explaining answers, the new methods were
particularly challenging for students with learning disabilities, or
those who struggle orally or with writing.

"To make a student feel like they're not good at math because they
can't explain something that to them seems incredibly obvious clearly
isn't good for the student," said W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor
at Johns Hopkins University.

Some parents of children who have typically excelled at math find the
curriculum laboriously slow.

In Slidell, an affluent suburb of New Orleans, Jane Stenstrom is
concerned that her daughter, who was assigned to a class for gifted
students as a third grader last year, did not progress quickly
enough. "For the advanced classes, it's restricting them from being
able to move forward," Ms. Stenstrom said one recent afternoon.

Her daughter, Anna Grace, 9, said she grew frustrated "having to draw
all those little tiny dots."

"Sometimes I had to draw 42 or 32 little dots, sometimes more," she
said, adding that being asked to provide multiple solutions to a
problem could be confusing. "I wanted to know which way was right and
which way was wrong."

Math experts say learning different approaches helps students develop
problem-solving skills beyond math. Employers "want a generation of
people who can think and reason and can construct an argument," said
Steven Leinwand, a researcher for the American Institutes of
Research. [See ]

In Louisiana, John White, state superintendent of education, said
that politics aside, applying the Common Core math standards would
take time.

"This is a shift for an entire society," he said. "No one should be
under any illusion that it's going to take just a year or two to
rethink the way that we teach mathematics, because it is really
challenging." The State Education Department has said it will not use
scores from Common Core tests in teacher evaluations for the next two

Laci Maniscalco, a third-grade teacher in Lafayette, La., who said
that sometimes her students cried during the past year when working
on problems under the new curriculum, said she had seen genuine
progress in their understanding - and in her own, as well.

"I have told my students countless times that I wish I had been
taught the way you are having the opportunity to learn," she said.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: From left, Jarrett Nelams, 7, and his brother Jadon,
9, with their mother, Rebekah, at home in Greenwell Springs, La.
Credit Image by Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
SIDEBAR PHOTO: A second-grade math work sheet. Credit Image by
Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Jadon, Jarrett and their brother John, 10. Come fall,
Ms. Nelams plans to educate her children at home, mainly because of
Common Core math.
Credit Image by Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
Correction: July 1, 2014 - An article on Monday about the struggle
to teach math under the Common Core academic standards referred
incorrectly to Linda M. Gojak's association with the National Council
of Teachers of Math. She is a former president, not the
organization's current one.
A version of this article appears in print on June 30, 2014, on page
A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Math Under Common Core
Has Even Parents Stumbling.

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