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New Math? Common Core Math?

Every few months, it seems that a new article circulates highlighting parent concerns about math. Their child brought home a worksheet with problem-solving methods that they haven’t seen before or the problems seem longer than the shortcuts that parents learned when they were in school – and they are rightfully frustrated. What’s important to remember is that while the math may look different, the results are better than ever.

Are students learning math differently than their parents did? Yes.

Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.

Common Core State Standards still require students to know basic procedures and traditional problem-solving methods, but the standards also encourage kids to use multiple approaches to solving math problems so that they can choose what works best for them, and so that they “develop a full understanding of concepts before they move on to more challenging levels,” according to a Collaborative “math check.”

Jason Zimba, a writer of the Common Core State Math Standards, notes that “according to the Common Core, students are expected to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations (the traditional “carry” method, in the case of addition).” Most of these methods weren’t created by the Common Core, they are methods experts agree are strong approaches to get kids to truly understand math concepts, rather than just memorize rules.

We know it’s important that students learn these multiple methods of problem solving, but is it worth it?

Early introduction to conceptual math, and a focus on showing students multiple ways of solving problems, is benefitting our nation’s students.

Collaborative Policy Director Adam Ezring notes, “Despite all the concerns of ‘fuzzy math,’ more 3rd graders this year were proficient than the year before, and the year before that… Math experts agree that this approach is key to getting kids more comfortable with math, so as they grow up, they are ready to tackle more difficult concepts.”

Recently, education advocate Campbell Brown asked, “If we are trying to bring our kids up to the next level… shouldn’t we allow our education system to evolve and get better, even if [we] don’t understand how to do that math problem?”

By becoming familiar with a variety of approaches to a problem, students develop a repertoire of math strategies. That allows them to pick and choose those that work best for them and bolsters conceptual understanding, which, in turn, cultivates the fundamental skills necessary to succeed at higher levels of math.

While the shift is good for students (and, nationwide, evidence from assessments this year indicates that it is helping to improve student proficiency), the changes are foreign to many parents. That unfamiliarity has helped more than a few confusing, poorly-written or simply inappropriate homework problems go viral.

Opponents of efforts to raise education standards, too, have promulgated poor assignments to provoke concern. All too readily, these critics have conflated classroom materials with learning goals. The claims have often been as outrageous as they are disingenuous: that states’ standards turn students gay, lead to the “sexualization” of students, or are a tool to indoctrinate students to radical Islam – to name just a few.

Let’s be clear: academic standards and curricular materials (lesson plans, homework assignments, texts and the like) are very different things. Standards outline the skills and knowledge students should build at each grade level to be on track for college and career readiness. Curricular materials are the tools educators use to help students achieve those goals – and are picked by teachers, district leaders and school boards.

Parents are an integral part of their children’s success in school. And if they don’t understand the way their students are learning math, we encourage them to learn more. They should talk to their child’s teacher. By working alongside educators, families can best support their children and ensure they are prepared to succeed at high levels of math.

West Virginia elementary curriculum specialist Jamie Merendino says it best: In math, high standards bridge the gap between memorization and understanding, “We need parents to know and understand the purpose behind these standards because then they are able to support their children.”

As states have put in place higher education standards, classroom instruction has shifted to put a greater emphasis on critical thinking and conceptual understanding, especially in math. In addition to traditional methods, students are encouraged to explore multiple problem-solving techniques, which help students build fluency with numbers and functions.

We believe education operates most effectively when policies are set close to home. High, comparable standards don’t jeopardize local control – in fact, if anything, they bolster it. That goes for textbooks and homework, as well. So, if parents have concerns about the materials their kids bring home, they can and should raise those with their schools and teachers.

By the same token, educators should continue to engage parents to help familiarize them with changes happening to instruction as states raise academic expectations. Across the country, there are countless examples of programs schools are offering to help parents support their children. We compiled a list of several resources and encourage families to learn more here.

About the Collaborative for Student Success

At our core, we believe leaders at all levels have a role to play in ensuring success for K-12 students. From ensuring schools and teachers are equipped with the best materials to spotlighting the innovative and bold ways federal recovery dollars are being used to drive needed changes, the Collaborative for Student Success aims to inform and amplify policies making a difference for students and families.

To recover from the most disruptive event in the history of American public schools, states and districts are leveraging unprecedented resources to make sure classrooms are safe for learning, providing students and teachers with the high-quality instructional materials they deserve, and are rethinking how best to measure learning so supports are targeted where they’re needed most. 

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