A New Kind of Problem: The Common Core Math Standards

A set of guidelines adopted by 45 states this year may turn children into "little mathematicians" who don't know how to do actual math.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for TheAtlantic.com describing some of the problems with how math is currently being taught. Specifically, some math programs strive to teach students to think like "little mathematicians" before giving them the analytic tools they need to actually solve problems.

Some of us had hoped the situation would improve this school year, as 45 states and the District Columbia adopted the new Common Core Standards. But here are two discouraging emails I received recently. The first was from a parent:

They implemented Common Core this year in our school system in Tennessee. I have a third grader who loved math and got A's in math until this year, where he struggles to get a C. He struggles with "explaining" how he got his answer after using "mental math." In fact, I had no idea how to explain it! It's math 2+2=4. I can't explain it, it just is.

The second email came from a teacher in another state:

I am teaching the traditional algorithm this year to my third graders, but was told next year with Common Core I will not be allowed to. They should use mental math, and other strategies, to add. Crazy! I am so outraged that I have decided my child is NOT going to public schools until Common Core falls flat.

So just what are the Common Core Standards for math? They are a set of guidelines written for both math and English language arts under the auspices of National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Where they are adopted, the Common Core standards will replace state standards in these subject areas, establishing more common ground for schools nationwide.

To read newspaper coverage of the new standards, you'd think they were raising the bar for math proficiency, not lowering it. "More is expected of the students," one article declares. "While they still have to memorize or have fluency in key math functions and do the math with speed and accuracy, they will have to demonstrate a deeper understanding of key concepts before moving on."

But what does this mean in practice? Another recent article explains, "This curriculum puts an emphasis on critical thinking, rather than memorization, and collaborative learning." In other words, instead of simply teaching multiplication tables, schools are adopting "an 'inquiry method' of learning, in which children are supposed to discover the knowledge for themselves." An educator quoted in the article admits that this approach could be frustrating for students: "Yes. Solving a problem is not easy. Learning is not easy."

With 100 pages of explicit instruction about what should be taught and when, one would expect the Common Core Standards to make problem-solving easier. Instead, one father quoted in the aforementioned article complains, "For the first time, I have three children who are struggling in math." Why?

Let's look first at the 97 pages of what are called "Content Standards." Many of these standards require that students to be able to explain why a particular procedure works. It's not enough for a student to be able to divide one fraction by another. He or she must also "use the relationship between multiplication and division to explain that (2/3) ÷ (3/4) = 8/9, because 3/4 of 8/9 is 2/3."

Presented by

Barry Garelick recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and obtained his credential to teach secondary math in California. He has written extensively about math education for various publications including Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News.

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