Common Core Math
A Guide for Parents
This post is for all of my friends with children who continue to ask me, “What is this Common Core?”
Disclaimer: I am no expert, but I have had the opportunity to work with my school district to integrate these new standards this year. In doing so, it is clear that there are still more questions than answers, but here is what I understand about the Common Core math standards thus far.
What is “Common Core” and why was it developed?
Right when we all thought we had finally figured out No Child Left Behind and the state standardized tests, it all changes. Why? In short, because it needed to. Our former methods of teaching discrete skills on a check-list so that they could be ticked away at on a “bubble-test” proved to be easy to teach to and fairly mindless for kids to take, but that mindlessness was exactly the problem. Putting high stakes on test scores by default forced even the best, most innovative teachers to focus more on the outcome of the test then on the quality of the learning. Students did not need to THINK about what they knew, only know it. They could recognize a prepositional phrase or multiply fractions, but not know when or how to apply these skills. This is the underlying motivation for moving away from standardized tests and toward a more fully encompassing assessment of not only what students know, but what they can do with what they know.
Here is the jargony answer of what Common Core is:
- “The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a single set of clear educational standards for English-language arts and mathematics that states can share and voluntarily adopt. The standards have been informed by the best available evidence and the highest state standards across the country and globe and designed by a diverse group of teachers, experts, parents, and school administrators, so they reflect both our aspirations for our children and the realities of the classroom. These standards are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to go to college or enter the workforce and that parents, teachers, and students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. The standards are benchmarked to international standards to guarantee that our students are competitive in the emerging global marketplace.”
In plain speak:
- Kids become adults. We must strive to develop adults who are competitive and prepared for the global marketplace. We need problem solvers and innovators, designers and communicators. Our systems overwhelmingly failed to produce such academically competitive and prepared students on a large-scale basis. Change needs to happen. These Common Core standards are an effort at making that change, developed by inspired grassroots educators. Will this work? I hope so, and in my own classroom, I believe it already is working. Doing what we have done for the last ten years is no longer an option. We know that doesn’t work.
How Is Common Core Math Different?
The easy answer is that kids are expected to learn less content, yet in far more depth and understanding.
Mile Deep, Inch Wide
- “For over a decade, research studies of mathematics education in high-performing countries have pointed to the conclusion that the mathematics curriculum in the United States must become substantially more focused and coherent in order to improve mathematics achievement in this country. To deliver on the promise of common standards, the standards must address the problem of a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These Standards are a substantial answer to that challenge.” http://www.corestandards.org/Math
Too long now, the math curriculum has been overly inclusive of so many isolated skills, there was very little time to teach how to think about and understand each concept and what its value is to the greater world. Kids were urged to just memorize the algorithm and move on! Hurry! With Common Core, at each grade level, fewer concepts are covered but in far more depth. Weeks may be spent discussing, manipulating, playing with, and solving applied problems on a single concept rather than just a few days. In that way, students gain a richer knowledge of what they are learning. Each concept becomes a part of their lexicon, their tool box, and they know when and how to use them. Phew! What a welcome relief for those who felt that math was moving on to the next concepts before they “got it.”
Think Big Picture
The purpose of the Common Core is to teach kids how to THINK about problems and apply various methodologies and skills to solve them accurately and efficiently.
Here is a sample fifth grade Common Core item on fractions:
Half of a school auditorium is needed to seat 3 equal-sized fifth grade classes.
Part A: Make a visual fraction model to represent the whole auditorium when each class is seated in separate sections.
Part B: Write an expression to determine what fractional part of the auditorium one fifth grade class will need.
Part C: What fraction of the auditorium will one of the fifth grade classes need?
Notice that students are given an overarching problem to solve. They must first, comprehend what the situation is and what the problem is asking. Then, they must design a model to represent the problem, describe the problem in numeric language, and finally, have a correct numerical answer. This is far different from the standard test item of the same concept, “What is ½ x ⅓?”
Our students will need to know HOW to solve a problem and WHY the methods they chose to solve it will work. Common Core requires them to metacognate, or THINK about THINKING. The goal is not simply to find the correct answer, but also to understand how you know your answer is correct and be able to explain it to others.
Link to More Sample Questions
Talk, Write, Prove, Explain, Defend
In a traditional classroom, math tends to be the most controlled and teacher-led period of the day. Kids come in, receive guided instruction on the discrete skill of the day, and then they work on that skill independently or in a remediated small group. Homework is more practice of that skill in the same format it was delivered in class. The Common Core math class on the other hand is active, noisy, and engaged. It is not enough to simply get an answer. Students must defend their answer and their methodology in both written paragraphs and in-class discussion as well as explain to others how their thinking might be flawed or what better methods are available. This dialogue takes place throughout every lesson. Students are asked to partner-share and work together at every step. Writing about math is also of key importance in the Common Core classroom. Writing helps us reflect on our learning, better understand concepts, and connect concepts to real life, making them more meaningful. Expect to see a lot more writing in math with Common Core!
There is More than One Right Way
Common Core is about solving problems and being able to prove that your answers and methods are correct in both writing and speaking. The lessons are designed to present a problem and have students first think and collaborate about what they would do to solve it. After sharing these methods, the teacher supplies various research-based methods for understanding the concept. Finally, the students learn the standard algorithm. This may seem quite backwards from the traditional method of teaching math: algorithm and drill, but it allows students to fully understand the mechanics of a given concept before being given a “short cut.” Common Core math honors and encourages a wide range of methods and asks students to step out of the box to truly comprehend the math involved in their learning.
Be Prepared for Frustration
Students who are “good” at math are often the ones who can learn a method, seem to “get it” right away, and who can complete an entire worksheet in minutes with ease. One type of problem to solve, one formula to use, piece of cake!
Common Core is not so simple. Students work up from their own understanding, receiving the common algorithms last, after much discussion and exploration. For upper-graders raised in the traditional way, they are not immediately interested in the why and the how when they have been successful with simply applying a given method. Furthermore, if they never learned the why behind the algorithms they used in the past, they cannot use the algorithm in abstract problems. “I don’t know why it works, it just does” is an attitude that serves a purpose on a typical drill worksheet, but offers little assistance when solving real-world problems.
In the Common Core classroom, all students are expected to explain how and why they solved a given problem the way they did and in situations where the algorithm is not apparent or yet unknown. “I already know how. I don’t need to explain it to anyone” or “Just show me how to do it, I don’t care why” are likely responses to Common Core math instruction from students used to the traditional math classroom. There will be frustration from these students who never felt frustration in math before, potentially challenging these students’ perceptions of themselves as math students. Being supportive and reminding them that it is OK to not understand something at first and that being persistent will not only help them get passed this self-image crisis, but is a valuable life lesson as well. Thinking is HARD, and if they have not been challenged to think in math up until now, there will be frustration, but arguably, this frustration is where learning really happens.
Be Ready for Surprised Successes
Students who have typically struggled in math will experience math with the Common Core in a dramatically new way. For those who feel math instruction moves too quickly for them, that they “just don’t get it”, or that they are simply “not good at math”, Common Core gives all students time to talk about, manipulate, draw pictures of, and play with concepts in various ways. Students who did not understand math when lessons were only based on discrete algorithms get their chance to participate and shine! Finally, the secrets hidden behind the algorithms are made clear to them, offered a key to math that they were never given before. What an empowering experience!
Mind the Gaps
Our upper-grade students (third grade and up) are going to have major gaps in their math instruction for the first few years of Common Core implementation. For younger students just beginning school at the onset of Common Core or who have grown up with CGI math, they will not sense a change and will not have any gaps to fill in their learning. Our older students do not have that luxury. The new curriculum does not spiral; it does not go back to review past concepts the way our old curriculum did. What is taught at lower levels is only taught at those levels. Likewise, concepts taught in fifth grade are only taught in fifth grade and so must be mastered while in fifth grade. Considering that this is the first year with Common Core in California, we will need to be prepared to recognize what skills our students may be missing and to teach those skills as needed.
The New Test
As the math curriculum is changing, so is testing. Out the window is the standardized test of No Child Left Behind. In comes the Smarter Balanced computer adaptive assessment. This test is designed to determine a student’s grade level equivalency with an average of only 20 test items. It works by giving a grade level question, then based on the student’s response, either gives a more or less challenging follow-up question. As students respond, the computer adapts the test to find the level that each student works at best. This may be at, above, or below the student’s grade level in school. The test will begin at the child’s performance level from the previous year in the following school year to show growth.
This test reflects the new methodology of Common Core and should not be ignored until test day! Not only are the questions much more in depth and intellectually more challenging, but they are given on the computer. Computer, mouse, and keyboard fluency is critical to success. Please visit the Smarter Balanced Practice Test to view and experience the types of questions your child will be asked. The more exposure to the test format the students have, the more likely they will be to show their knowledge on test day.
Fortunately, this year, 2013-2014, is a “test of the test”. Test developers are piloting the test on a large-scale, but students will not receive scores in this first year. This is a learning period for all. However, in the next few years, and at the middle and high school levels, pay attention! The eleventh grade year will be a critical testing year. If students do not pass the eleventh grade test, thus prove unable to prove college or career readiness, they will be required to take remediated courses their first year in college. When this high-stakes situation will begin, I do not know, but it is in the pipeline.
Is Common Core worth it?
I hope so, and in my own classroom, I believe it is. For my math class, we learn numbers and concepts so we can use them in real-world problems. If only my own math experience growing up had been so relevant, I probably would not have hated math so much!