Can Parents Cope with Common Core Math Standards?

Another school year has started, but for many parents, so has the dread: Will I be able to help my child with her homework in the age of Common Core math standards?

Last year, when schools in 44 states officially began to implement new math curricula aligned with the national Common Core standards, many parents rebelled. The most famous was comedian Louis C.K., who tweeted that his daughters’ love of math was being destroyed by the initiative: “My kids used to love math! Now it makes them cry,” he wrote, sarcastically thanking the Common Core Standards for his daughters’ change of heart.

He later went on the “Late Show” with David Letterman, saying he was frustrated by the homework, which had problems that rarely made sense to either him or his daughters. The comedian’s rant resonated with many parents, and felt like vindication against Common Core supporters like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who dismissed critics of the standards as white suburban moms who were dismayed their children were not as smart as their moms thought they were.

Other pushback against the initiative came when states such as Indiana and Arizona reconsidered their participation in the Common Core, while parents in New York encouraged their children to opt out of the standardized tests based on the controversial academic standards.

But even as the two sides continue to bicker in the new school year, children still need to continue their math education, and, as a parent in a Common Core state, what do you do?

When Both Students and Parents Struggle

For Olivia Delmonico, whose son Sam is about to start fifth grade at a California school, the answer was to get proactive. Last year, Sam struggled with his math lessons, and like Louis C.K., Delmonico often found the homework bizarre.

For example, in a question that introduced a very basic area problem, L x W = A, the diagram that accompanied it was obviously not drawn to scale. While it is not uncommon for teachers to tell students to trust the numbers and not the picture when solving a problem — a technique meant to encourage abstract thinking — the next question in the assignment expected the student to rely on the proportions of the diagram.

In another case, the instructions for a set of subtraction problems called for the “standard algorithm,” but didn’t define what that meant, and Sam said his teacher had not defined the concept in class. It turned out to be the stacking method most adults learned in school, which requires borrowing and carrying numbers.

Delmonico contacted Sam’s teacher, who expressed sympathy with the mother, as well as frustration with the new learning materials. She counseled Delmonico to look at the Common Core math modules available online through the district’s website. Delmonico did, but found the task of poring over the almost 300 pages “extremely frustrating.” She wished the lessons included a glossary, since so many once-familiar terms had been replaced — a “number line” was now a “tape diagram,” and an "equation" had become a "number sentence."

But even with all the frustration, Delmonico says she appreciates the new curriculum’s focus on concepts instead of memorization, and likes the idea that there is more than one way to solve a math problem.

The implementation is another story, however.

“The implementation really pissed me off,” she said.

How to Be Proactive and Open-Minded

To Minnesota-based author, math educator, and community college instructor Christopher Danielson, Delmonico’s concerns about fuzzy curricula and how they’ve been rolled out are legitimate.

“That is a valid critique,” said Danielson, who wrote Common Core Math for Parents For Dummies with parents like Sam’s mom in mind. “The standards are set, but absolutely, curriculum materials are still in flux.” According to Danielson, some publishers were too quick to label materials as aligned with Common Core, when in fact many weren’t. And then, some school districts raced to implement standards and acquired those mislabeled materials, a mix-up that caused confusion.

In his book, Danielson has done his best to address the concepts students will be taught under the new standards, grade by grade, and to provide tips and advice for parents whose math is rusty. He also counsels parents to contact their child’s math teacher and keep the lines of communication open, and to talk to fellow parents and exchange resource information, such as tutors and study groups.

And while he is glad parents like Delmonico are being proactive, he sympathizes with their frustration, particularly with the pedagogical jargon that gets thrown around when educators discuss any kind of education reform. “As a parent, it’s not your job to be well-versed in academic research,” he says.

As for the parents who dismiss Common Core out of hand, Danielson urges them to reconsider, since the new approach to math can make a big difference. “The Common Core Standards still require students to memorize addition and multiplication facts,” he writes in the first chapter of his book. “They still require students to learn the standard algorithms and the Pythagorean theorem,” too. But the big difference is that “the role of student thinking has changed.” Under the Common Core standards, students’ ideas are viewed as crucial to learning.

Danielson recommends that those on the fence about the Common Core “step back and say, ‘What is the purpose of what my child is trying to do?’”

Apart from Danielson’s book, there are other resources to help parents and students understand the new curricula, including websites, online videos and, of course, other books. In addition, some districts across the country offer special workshops for parents on Common Core math. Parents in districts that don’t offer such workshops should consider contacting their PTA to see if it’s possible to start one.

You also can find free math help on Noodle, with articles like:

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