August 14, 2014

Why I Stopped Criticizing Common Core Math

Guest Post by Adrianne Meldrum at The Tutor House

One of my favorite scenes in Disney's Tangled is when Rapunzel makes the decision to leave her tower.  She isn't sure whether she should feel guilty or gleeful.  If you don't remember this scene (or just want to watch it again--because it's so below).

Tangled up in emotions.

I relate to those feelings oh so well when I look back at my experience with the Common Core Math Standards.

Much like Rapunzel, I was wide eyed and excited to learn about these math standards. I knew that because we were such a transient culture that it could help more children be at the same place academically when they moved to a new city. I was giddy at the idea that children were going to dig deeper into math as well.

Then my own children experienced Common Core Math.  (cue the scary music)  Suddenly, I felt myself getting angry at the way they were teaching my children to do math. I also felt like we were going against the way we were taught.  What was wrong with the way we were taught?

Math became  hard and confusing at times for my children and me. To make matters more complicated, I am a private math tutor. For goodness sake--I should be able to figure this stuff out! And honestly...I did, but it took some time and thinking. I wanted desperately to go back and have things stay the same.

One night, my son brought me his homework and he was marked wrong (yet again) even when his work was correct. After dealing with my frustrations, I realized what she was trying to teach my son something very important. She wanted him to attend to precision. The very skills that I demand in  my own students when they came to tutoring!

And so the pendulum swung for me this previous school year while I sorted out my feelings and own misconceptions about Common Core Math. I decided to confront some of my own thoughts and frustrations. I started to read Common Core Standards beyond the grades that I tutored.  I read the suggested pacing guide and got a more complete picture. While reading, I discovered something that teachers should be telling parents...the standard algorithm that we grew up using is in there! Imagine that. Starting in third grade, the standard algorithm shows up. Students are expected to know how to add and subtract the "old school" way.

"Fluently add and subtract within 1000 using strategies and algorithms
based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship
between addition and subtraction." (3.NBT.2)

I could feel the joy bubbling up inside of me. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for teachers and parents to know where we have been in grades previous and where we are heading. We need to see the full picture. I know that celebrities and comedians like to paint a picture of students using number parts and number lines as adults, (ahem--Stephen Colbert) and I laugh right along with them...because using those methods as an adult is crazy. The point is, the methods being taught in lower grades enables students to do mental math thus freeing up their mind to do harder mathematics. I spend a lot of time as a middle and high school math tutor waiting for a child to tell me what 6 x 8 equals. I've seen a change with some of my students that are younger. They have fluency with math facts whereas, the older students do not.

Common Core Math Mindset

To bring my feelings full circle, I made a choice to attend a mathematics conference this summer.  Phil Daro, the lead author of the Common Core Math Standards, was our keynote speaker. He made excellent points about the teaching children to be critical thinkers and less worried about answer getting. Our world needs more critical thinkers. He emphasized teaching math with this mindset:

You Do:  The student explores a problem and comes to conclusions on their own.

We Do:  The teacher leads a discussion about the conclusions students make. Students are encouraged to share their ideas and the teacher guides them towards the concept being taught.

I Do:  The teacher then steps in and teaches the mathematical concept and provides exercises for students to practice.

No matter what your feelings are about the Common Core Math Standards; it takes time for teachers, children, and parents to adjust. Even if you are hopeful that Common Core will just be a blip in history, we need to stop putting our heads in the sand and get comfortable with these ideas that are not new in any sense.

Educating Parents About Common Core Math

What can you do as a teacher to help implement and educate parents about common core math?

1.  Host a Parent Math Night
At the beginning of the year, show parents how Common Core Math is being taught to their children. Reassure them that the way they learned how to do math is being taught right along side other methods. Laura has a great free resource about how to host such a night like this. Download it here.

2.  Include Parents During Math
If you are having discussion about math with your students, don't be afraid to invite parents to come and watch so they can see the value in what you are teaching their children.  Specifically ask for volunteers to come to class during math as well!

3.  Give Parents a Math Glossary
I've seen many awesome math vocabulary packs on Teachers Pay Teachers, why not take it a step further and allow parents to have their own copy of math vocabulary in a glossary. Make sure the definitions also include examples so that parents can refer to the glossary when an issue arrives with homework.

4.  Provide Quality Articles and References
There are a lot of misleading images and articles floating around on the web. Parents are confused! Help them get some clarity by sharing articles and references that you've found are helpful. If you have a class website, provide an entire page dedicated to links that will help parents understand Common Core more fully. Here are some suggestions:

Americans Are Bad at Math, but It's Not Too Late to Fix It
Common Core Math Standards in Action
Truth About Common Core
The Common Core Savvy Quiz

Bottom line, implementation of Common Core Math Standards is key. If we don't take the time to properly educate and introduce parents to these standards, we will always be facing resistance.

What about you?  How have you educated parents?

Adrianne is a private tutor and creates materials for tutors and teachers alike.  She authors The Tutor House, a blog aimed at helping tutors run an effective business.


  1. Thanks for letting me share Laura!

  2. Thank you so much for including the link to my post!

  3. Mdm Shanti bought 1/3 as many chocolates as sweets. She gave each of her neighbours' children 4 chocolates and 3 sweets, after which she had 6 chocolates and 180 sweets left.

    (a) How many children received the chocolates and sweets?
    (b) how many sweets did she buy?

    ans 18 children 234 sweets.

    this is the questions our 12 year old do for their National exams.. is this type of questions easier or tougher than your core maths ?

    1. My thoughts...
      1. Unless Singapore Math materials are being used, US students could only solve this with algebra. For example, let y=# of children,etc. Students trained in Singapore Math might consider a "bar model" approach.
      2. Problems of this level of complexity are unusual in US texts. Most 7th graders here are in prealgebra. This type of question would fit into 1st year algebra but I haven't yet seen many problems requiring this level of reasoning.
      3. My instinct is that many of our **secondary** students would struggle with this! That's easy enough for teachers to verify.
      4. Yes, Common Core has raised the bar but the proof will be in the difficulty of the problems students are expected to solve. If 12 year olds in your country are expected to solve this question on a National Exam then they must have been exposed to similar questions in their classes. In my opinion, we are not there yet...

  4. I would say it is similar to our expectations. They would be asked to write an equation to solve the problem as well.

  5. I was wondering if this new method is proven to work? I am sure that they did some studies how it better helps kids gain deeper understanding.

    1. I'm not sure what you mean by "new method". Could you expand on that? If you are referring to student discovery (aka investigations, problem-based, inquiry-based) and classroom discourse (purposeful questions and conversations) that is not really new - and yes, research supports this style of teaching. Not only do students make more connections, thus gaining a deeper understanding, but they tend to retain what they have learned. I'm not sure that is what you are asking.

  6. Glad to hear you looked at the progression of the standards and are paying attention to the math practice standards as well as the content standards. Teachers and schools need more advocates like you. Just a point of clarification . . . that third grade standard you quoted doesn't necessarily refer to the standard algorithm. It actually refers to any algorithm, as long as it's based on place value. But you're right, the standard algorithm does appear in the standards. It is in the fourth grade standards, 4.NBT.B.4, "Fluently add and subtract multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm." So while students should be skilled at the standard algorithm by the end of fourth grade, they should not be expected to use or be skilled at using it in third. In third it is one of many options as long as students are able to explain how it works.

  7. Lol. I would immediately fire anyone working for me attempting to use common core math on the job. If you want to teach precision skills, critical thinking, philosophy, or whatever, then establish classes for those subjects. Don't mix them in with math and destroy the potential of an entire generation to produce. The idea that critical thinking is more important than answer getting is the cause of many workplace disasters, not to mention loss of production. Answer getting is the basis of critical thinking or else it is nothing more than daydreaming. Solving problems quickly and easily are the wheels of life. Common Core math puts square wheels on the wagon of progress.

    1. You clearly must employ engineers and not mathematicians. Engineers couldn't solve a math problem they didn't learn in a book if their life depended on it.

    2. ps, the employees that you fire - send them my way. can always use another critical thinker on the job.

    3. A critical thinker that won't be able to do math.

  8. Cedric, You took the words right out of my mouth. I totally agree. It feels at times like my son is being steered AWAY from solving the problem while being distracted with learning how to explain problem solving with words, which creates confusion and uncertainty. English has spelling, grammar, and reading. These are all taught individually. Maybe Common Core Math has a place, but it should most certainly not be a substitute for math. I totally agree with your square wheels comment too.

  9. In fifth grade, my son has these two questions: 1.) Write four numbers that would round to 6.87 2.) After finding your answers, explain the reasoning you used to determine four numbers that would round to 6.87. What do you think?

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  13. This article inspired me to create my own blog so I can share Common Core resources, debunk Common Core myths, and alleviate fears about the new shift. Thanks for the inspiration! You can find my blog at ; I'll definitely be adding much more in the coming days. Very insightful read here, I really appreciate it!

  14. Computers do a great job using algorithms. Our job is to develop algorithms. Thank you, Adrianne!

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  16. Thank you so much. Your blog does an excellent job of sharing not only your fear of the unknown, but gives great insight to other parents/concerned adults as to how they should address those concerns. By going straight to the source and exploring the standards on your own you were able to gain more insight as to what your son (and his teacher) were focusing on at his grade level and how that would shape his future in mathematics.

    As a tutor yourself you have been able to see the benefits of the Common Core Standards in your younger students in both their number sense and in their confidence. I am hopeful that this trend will continue and when those young students reach me at the high school level they will not only be comfortable with math, but have a joy of learning.

    Thank you also for the recommendations on how to address the concerns of parents. I am a new parent (my son is only 18 months) so it's hard for me to fully relate to the fears that other parents have with the new standards. By being proactive and educating the parents as to the changes and similarities between the "old way" of learning math and the new standards I believe that more parents will gain an appreciation for the Common Core Standards much like you did.


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