When Parents Are the Ones Getting Schooled by the Common Core

Grownups are hitting the books and taking classes just so they can help their kids with their math homework.

A mother helps her 6-year-old daughter with her Common Core-aligned math homework at their home in Berkeley, California. (AP Photo)

“It feels like a dark time,” wrote the comedian Louis C.K. in a tweet last April. “I’m pissed,” he wrote in another, a few minutes later. C.K. was, indeed, very, very angry. And this time, it wasn’t his own “yucky” existence that was making him fume. Rather, it was a different kind of “massive stressball” irking him: the Common Core State Standards.

In his now-famous rant, the middle-aged father of two lamented the controversial academic benchmarks and the accompanying onslaught of rigorous testing in New York City’s public schools, where his daughters were enrolled. Specifically, C.K. was exasperated by the Common Core’s overhaul of math—a subject his kids, he noted, once loved. “Now it makes them cry,” he tweeted, posting pictures of his then-third-grade daughter’s apparently mind-boggling homework. “Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

Yes, the cynical, self-loathing comedian was stumped by the Common Core. And if the flurry of responses commiserating with C.K. is any indication, so are thousands, if not millions, of other child-rearing adults across the United States. As The Washington Post noted last year, parents are finding themselves “flustered” by their inability to comprehend their kids’ homework. The Common Core standards stress “the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills” in math and reading and, although they technically don’t prescribe curriculum, they have incentivized schools to adopt new materials and instructional tactics designed to be more in sync with the new standards. That’s why “old-fashioned” arithmetic methods such as the carry-and-borrow technique are being phased out. That’s also why, in large part, the country has seen an outbreak of desperate Facebook pleas, indignant op-eds, talk-show commentary, and mass testing boycotts from parents seeking nothing short of a Common Core apocalypse.

But amid all that handwringing, another curious and perhaps amusing phenomenon has emerged: Parents are going back to school (or somehow continuing their education) just to try and make sense of it all. School districts across the country are hosting parents’ nights to get them acquainted with the new academic strategies. Nevada’s Clark County School District, for example, has offered twice-monthly, taxpayer-funded seminars devoted to helping parents understand Common Core math. On top of Khan Academy’s resources, parents also have at their disposal a plethora of how-to videos and tip sheets, practice exercises and “road maps.” There’s Common Core Math For Parents For Dummies (with accompanying online videos) or the more general Common Core Standards For Parents For Dummies (sans videos). Or, to change it up, there’s Parents’ Guide to Common Core Arithmetic: How to Help Your Child. For those who really want to master it? At least one institution—Suffolk County Community College—offers a $108-a-person Common Core math course for parents that runs a few weeks long.

As Education Week has reported, it’s not uncommon for new math methods to cause panic among America’s parents. Take the federally sponsored, Sputnik-inspired “New Math” movement of the 1960s (a favorite among satirists such as Tom Lehrer), for example, or the 1989 standards initiative aimed at promoting “mathematical literacy and technical agility in the age of information” (which prompted what some commentators described as “The Math Wars”). Still, this likely marks the first time in American history that education reform has prompted such an intense and proactive reaction from parents. The question is: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Depending on how you look at it, the degree to which parents are investing their time and energy and sanity in learning the Common Core’s newfangled methods—for the sake of keeping their kids’ grades up—could be more depressing than it is exciting.

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“Perhaps the most disconcerting issue, for us, is the distance the Common Core has created between parents and their children’s education,” wrote the Lifehacker writer Melanie Pinola. “It’s like having a nightmare where you’re trying to help your child over some hurdle but you’re given foreign instructions like ‘use a multiplication fact as place value as another way to multiply by a multiple of 10.’ (That’s a real math problem.)” The new strategies come with catchy names like “skip counting” and “drawing an array” and “making 10,” among a range of other tactics students are encouraged to master. One way to figure out a subtraction problem, for example, is called “counting up.” Say a question asked a student to subtract 29 from 248. Using traditional methods, you and I might do something like this:

Now, however, kids would instead employ series of alternative methods to arrive at 219, such as “counting up”:

In other words, students would be asked to count up to 248 using numbers that are easy to work with—numbers that they’d then add up to arrive at the difference.

Still, for many parents, that new approach may look like pure nonsense—or just a lot of extra work. Erick Erickson, a parent and the editor in chief of the conservative political blog RedState, lamented last year that the Common Core-style learning amounts to “insanity”: “This is maddening and angering and frustrating. This is why so many parents are so upset,” he wrote. “They cannot help their children. The math makes no sense and seems to offer no practical purpose other than it is new.”

But Common Core supporters such as Nina Leonhardt, the associate dean for continuing education at Suffolk County Community College and creator of the $108 course for parents, argue that it offers a more practical approach to thinking about the equation. The standards encourage kids to calculate the arithmetic in their heads using tangible, visible concepts—much as they would in the real world. Educators say getting students acquainted with these strategies early on can help them develop the skill sets they need when they’re faced with increasingly complex math. A recent RAND Corporation study of 17 state standardized tests, pre-Common Core, found that 2 percent of math questions assessed students on “cognitively demanding” skills.

“You always hear people say, ‘I can’t do math, I don’t like math. Why do I need it?’” said Leonhardt, emphasizing the practical value of these new strategies for today’s adults. “The reality is that if they understand how it is applied to the real world ... then perhaps it’s not so ancillary; it’s a basic skill that should be acquired. There are applications to daily life and to the workplace and to the critical-thinking skills cited over and over again by employers.”

Some observers point to how poorly the country’s students perform on standardized math assessments, particularly relative to places like Singapore, whose world-famous math approach is comparable to the one promoted by the new standards. Just one in three U.S. eighth-graders performed proficiently on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2012. And it’s worth noting that math proficiency levels in the U.S. have always been on the low side: Based on extrapolated NAEP data, the average eighth-grade math score in 1973 was 266 out of 500 (compared to 285 in 2012).

With all that in mind, some previously skeptical parents have conceded that there may be merits to the Common Core. The elementary-level arithmetic most of today’s adults likely learned is based largely on rote memorization and other superficial methods designed to help kids land on  an answer. The way I mastered my multiplication tables (in 1998, as incentivized by prizes such as special post-lunch popsicles) involved JumpStart computer games and a few shortcuts I gleaned from my teachers—the hand trick for multiples of nine, for example.

Meanwhile, the prospect that parents are likely striving to keep up with their kids’ learning as never before indicates a degree of engagement that, in itself, is beneficial for their achievement—at least according to some research. The widely cited Harvard Family Research Project study by William Jeynes, now an education professor at California State University, Long Beach, suggested that parental involvement in homework can boost a student’s academic performance.

But other, more recent research suggests outcomes that are quite contradictory, as The Teacher Wars author Dana Goldstein reported for The Atlantic last April. “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education,” she wrote, citing an extensive, longitudinal study by sociology professors at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke. “Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect [the UT researcher Keith Robinson] says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

Goldstein pointed out that the federal government has since the 1960s incentivized parent involvement, primarily for low-income youth, a trend that continued under No Child Left Behind. While some habits do seem to have a positive impact—such as reading aloud to young children or discussing college plans—little evidence suggests that intensive involvement in school-specific activities is helpful, she wrote.

Regardless of whether parental involvement in homework hurts or helps a student’s achievement, though, the Common Core–inspired continuing-education movement among parents could simply be symptomatic of Americans’ growing emphasis on having a competitive edge, what Brookings economists recently dubbed “The Rug Rat Race.”

Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the UT system’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said the trend demonstrates “that parents are full partners in their children’s education,” which he said sharply diverges from his upbringing, “when my schooling was entirely my own responsibility.” According to Mintz, this type of reaction is “a recent phenomenon”: “Now that education is one of the keys to a child’s future class status, and now that there is a widespread consensus (at least among the more affluent) that parental investments (whether in terms of cultural capital, social capital, or education) in children pay off, many parents worry that a lack of involvement will have long-term negative consequences,” he said in an email, echoing Goldstein in pointing out that the onus is increasingly on parents to give their kids an advantage in school activities like science fairs. “To put this bluntly: In more competitive circumstances, children are increasingly seen as projects to be perfected (and other children are seen as threats to be managed or outperformed).”

But it’s not just about competition, necessarily. Mintz also pointed to a simultaneous trend in which adults are increasingly participating in “DIY learning opportunities,” such as MOOCs. “What I’m implying is that parents aren’t simply helping their children,” he said. “They are seeking to broaden themselves.”

The problem with all this engagement, wrote the middle-school math teacher and writer Anthony Cody last month, is that it risks widening socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement. Pointing to the $108 course at Suffolk County Community College, Cody asked in a recent blog post, “Any guesses as to the socioeconomic status of the parents who will find the time to take special courses like this?” It’s true—it often takes a little extra cash for parents to brush up on things like new Common Core skills, regardless of how engaged a parent is. “Most parents will not be taking these classes, and will be helpless—even embarrassed,” Cody wrote, “ when their second graders bring home work that looks arcane.”