Confusing Math Homework? Don’t Blame the Common Core

States, districts, and schools are actually in charge.
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“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.

In fact, parents’ and teachers’ complaints about math instruction predate the implementation of the Common Core. 11 years ago, New York City teacher Matthew Clavel wrote about his dissatisfaction with the “fuzzy math-inspired” Everyday Math curriculum in New York’s City Journal Magazine. 

The curriculum’s failure was undeniable: Not one of my students knew his or her times tables, and few had mastered even the most basic operations; knowledge of multiplication and division was abysmal.

Clavel goes on to detail his frustration with the curriculum’s “incoherent approach” to math, one that favors critical thinking skills over the memorization of math facts, or, put in the pejorative language of its detractors, “drill-and-kill” pedagogy. Clavel also points out that when we eliminate math fact memorization from the curriculum, we foster a reliance on calculators, and that this reliance hinders students’ success in math, particularly in minority classrooms.

The repudiation of skills in Fuzzy Math also encourages a detrimental over-reliance on calculators. The use of these gadgets to replace mental computation raises concerns about learning skills for all school children. According to a 2000 Brookings Institute study, fourth graders who used calculators every day were likely to do worse in math than other students. But it’s minority kids like those in my class who are turning to calculators the most. The Brookings study reports that half of all black school children used calculators every day, compared with 27 percent of white school kids.

Students’ inability to execute simple computations in their own heads leads to a number of problems as they move into the more complex mathematical concepts of algebra and geometry, let alone when it comes time to calculate the tip on a restaurant bill.

Last December, Emily Willingham revisited Clavel’s frustration with fuzzy math in her article that poses the question, “Is Everyday Math the Worst Math Program Ever?” The logical conclusion of her piece is “Yes.” Willingham concludes the article with her personal assessment of Everyday Math, based on hours of exposure to its bewildering details through her children. “My children like math and play math games at home for entertainment. But they hate Everyday Math, every day.”

As the mother of a child struggling with the weird and wacky world of Everyday Math, I agree with Willingham’s assessment of Everyday Math and its fuzzy brethren. But more than that, I am pleased that Willingham took the time to do her research and understand that their flaws are unrelated to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. She placed the blame where it belongs, and as a parent and educator who appreciates logic, clarity, and reason, I applaud her efforts.

Journalists, teachers, and parents should heed her restraint. In order to defeat the enormous problems that plague education, we must divide and conquer. There is much to be angry about, but fuzzy math, school choice, poverty, overcrowded classrooms, and state-mandated standardized testing were threats long before the Common Core State Standards arrived. If parents are frustrated by the methodologies popping up in their children’s classrooms, they should blame those responsible: the states, districts, and schools. As we rally together and arm ourselves with pitchforks and torches, it would be wise to pause, collect our wits, and remember that the enemy we seek to run out of town on a rail may just be a fictional monster of our own making. 

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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 site, Coming of Age in the Middleand 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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