Confusing Math Homework? Don’t Blame the Common Core

States, districts, and schools are actually in charge.
Patrick Giblin/Flickr

“I hate the Common Core,” the mother of two complained when I told her I write about education.

“What, specifically, do you hate?” I asked.

“The math. It makes no sense! I can’t help my kid with his homework and I don’t understand the new methods at all.”

What I told this mother, and what I wish I could explain to every parent frustrated with the nonsensical math homework coming home in our children’s backpacks, is this: The confusing math methodology everyone is complaining about is not part of the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core is a set of “standards,” lists of competencies or skills that kids will need to know by the end of a given school year. Standards require what skills will be taught, while curriculum dictates other details such as how a given skill is conveyed to a second grader. For example, the Standards require second graders to know that “100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens—called a ‘hundred,’” but curriculum dictates the textbook, or teaching methodology, or philosophy used to teach that skill. The confusing math that has been coming home in our children’s backpacks is a result of Everyday Math, a curriculum based on critical thinking skills, (so-called “fuzzy math”) developed at the University of Chicago.

It is important to note that while the Common Core State Standards have been voluntarily implemented in all but five states, neither the Common Core State Standards nor curriculum are federally mandated. Education has always been locally controlled, and it is up to individual states, districts, or schools to teach the standards via a curriculum of their choosing, such as Everyday Math or Singapore Math, and this is where the blame for the confusing math methodology lies.

This distinction may seem like a nitpicky matter of semantics, but it is not. In order to have an honest and productive debate about the efficacy of the Common Core State Standards, we must separate fact from fiction, and the idea that a particular confusing math curriculum is part and parcel of the Common Core is fiction. Bill Schmidt, Director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University, agrees. “The trouble is that many claim to represent the Common Core when they don’t, and that confuses parents.”

The fiction that fuzzy math is a function of the Common Core State Standards is being perpetuated by the media, anti-Common Core activists, and the misinformed. Recently, Time, Huffington Post, and The Hechinger Report all ran pieces about a father’s viral Facebook post blaming the Common Core for his son’s unnecessarily confusing math homework. With headlines like, “Why is This Common Core Math Problem So Hard?”, these outlets hastened the spread of the rumor that Common Core is to blame for fuzzy math. While the Hechinger Report article goes on to quote two authors of the Common Core math standards who express the sentiment: “Don’t blame Common Core. Blame a poorly written curriculum,” the misleading title of the article begins with the supposition that the Common Core is to blame for the confusing nature of the teaching. Until media outlets stop conflating issues of Common Core and curriculum, the public will continue to blame Common Core for the harm that flawed, but locally selected, curriculums are doing to math education.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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