Understand and Help Your Child With Common Core
“It's frustrating to me because I feel stupid about not understanding it, and I take that frustration out on my son,” she says.
For Randazzo and a lot of other parents in the Bay Area and around the country, the switch to the Common Core State Standards, the new national benchmarks in math and language arts, has not been a welcome change – especially in math.
In much of the country, the fight against the changes has been political, with a few states even choosing not to adopt the new standards. But in the Bay Area and California, much of the frustration surfaces at homework time when children ask for help – and parents are stumped (and sometimes embarrassed) because the new approaches are different than what they remember learning.
“Whatever happened to 2+2=4? It was simple. Easy. I didn't have to draw anything out and put things in sets of ten,” says Randazzo.
For a lot of parents, it means extra time must be allotted for math homework – and it also means a scramble to find help.
Natasha DeCourcy, a mother of four in Alameda, has three children in public elementary school. She says the amount of time the family now spends on math homework has increased markedly since the introduction of Common Core – and her kids no longer look forward to math the way they used to. “Common Core is giving them a negative association with it,” she says.
When DeCourcy or her kids don’t understand something, she looks the concept up online. She is also considering purchasing a copy of the teacher version of the textbooks and possibly hiring a tutor to help with math homework. "It takes most of the homework time, leaving less time to complete other projects,” she says.
When it comes to Common Core math, going online for help is quite common, as is Googling an unfamiliar concept. So is turning to friends, according to Jennifer Howell, a kindergarten teacher in Alameda and mother of a fifth- and ninth-grader. Howell has a friend who sends her camera-phone photos of particularly vexing problems. Howell can then get back to her with her understanding of the problems.
As a teacher, Howell hasn’t heard many parent complaints about Common Core, but she says that is most likely due to the fact that she teaches kindergarten. “It doesn’t feel like a change for them,” she says, since the children are being introduced to many of the math concepts for the first time.
As someone who has been trained in Common Core, Howell says she understands the whys behind it, both from a parent and a teacher perspective. In many cases, Common Core uses “multiple methods” of solving the same problem, including graphic representations that are foreign to many parents who learned math the “old way.”
“For a parent who has never seen it before, I can see how it would be frustrating and confusing,” she says.
In response to parents’ frustrations, schools around the country and here in the Bay Area have been holding designated Math Nights and “Math University” workshops as an opportunity for parents to learn the whys of the new standards and how they are being implemented – as well as to give them a chance to try their own hand at some of the math problems. In San Francisco, the events are being held both at the district and individual school level and have been very well attended, according to Gentle Blythe, a San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson.
Not all parents are frustrated with the new standards. Some feel that they are giving their children something they didn’t have before in math: real-world applications and a lot of writing practice.&pagebreaking&For Jo Mortensen, a mother of twin sixth-graders in Oakland, the biggest change she has seen has been the amount of writing. An example was one of her girls’ assignments during the first semester: to write an advocacy letter for or against the implementation of "Stop and Frisk" in Oakland, using data analysis of statistics from New York regarding the number of people of each ethnic group stopped versus the number of arrests.
“It was interesting to see the girls go through the analysis and provide an opinion based on the facts, then express that in words,” says Mortensen. “So I see more real-world application of the manipulation of numbers…. This is a departure from some of the more absurd word games that may stretch your mind but bear no resemblance to real-world situations.”
Kai King, a middle school math teacher at the private AltSchool in San Francisco, says both writing and real-world applications are critical to a child’s future success in math – and life.
“Without the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’, math quickly devolves into boring and irrelevant exercises. Our traditional ‘drill and kill’ approach has led to rote memorization without broad understanding,” says King. “One of the impetuses for the Common Core was that our children were passing difficult tests in the short term, but remembering very little in the long term.”
“I tell parents that the answer in math is far less important than the method to the answer,” he adds. “The problems that our students will be asked to tackle in the year 2030 will be so complex, they will need experience examining solutions from multiple perspectives.”
School by School
How Common Core is implemented can vary greatly depending on the school district.
“Some have adopted the new standards fully, while others are phasing the new standards in,” says Kristopher White, assistant principal of academics at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda and an adjunct professor at USF working with single-subject credential candidates. “There are likely some schools, too, which are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude to see the extent to which Common Core will take root or not.”
Because there are so many different approaches, one of the best things parents can do is check in with their own schools, says White.
“My advice for parents is to work closely with their child's teacher and school administrators, especially in terms of what is and isn't in the Common Core. Too many parents are relying on the general media or word-of-mouth to make conclusions about it. They should, instead, be taking their cues from educators themselves,” he says.
White also suggests that parents pull the Common Core standards from the Web, review them and compare them with whatever standards their child's school was using prior to Common Core.
“Yes, the Common Core approaches math differently from the way most of us learned math, but the content of what is actually in Common Core is not radically different from what was there before.”
This confusion has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to implementing the new standards, according to Phil Gonsalves, senior director of the math/science/STEM consortium for the West Contra Costa County Unified School District. He says he often hears people talking about the “new math” of Common Core. But that is a misconception, he says.
“This is not new math. It is just more math. It’s just going deeper in the math,” he adds.
The old way of teaching math isn’t wrong, says Gonsalves. It just isn’t complete.
“We’re not saying that it’s bad to teach it that way,” he says. But if math is only taught that one way, then it is a problem.
“Rather than just teach kids that one way, teach them a bunch of different ways and let them pick the one that works best for them,” he says.
Liz Garone is an Alameda-based freelance writer.