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.