Common Core Math Issues

We had just spent two days going over every bench mark for the elementary and junior high portion of our school district’s math curriculum when the high school Calculus teacher stunned the room.

“We don’t need any bench marks for high school,” he said. “Some kids just can’t do math and we shouldn’t prevent them from graduating.” I thought that the 1st grade teacher, whose students had six pages of benchmarks, was going to go into cardiac arrest. Further clarification revealed that the calculus teacher wouldn’t even concede that a graduating high school student should be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide three digit numbers. Although we did in fact come up with mathematical bench marks for graduation, this teacher revealed a common myth about math: “that some people can do math and some can’t.”  Judging by the ranking of US math students (somewhere behind Sudan and Pottsylvania), most Americans share this fallacy. Otherwise we would do something instead of whining about our dismal scores year after year.

The introduction of Common Core (CC) has revived a lot of the usual nonsense about mathematics education in this country. The biggest laugh comes from the line that “moms can’t help their children with their math homework if we adopt Common Core.” Do politicians want to seriously argue that moms and schools have done such a great job of helping kids become math literate until now? Like many people, I am suspicious of Common Core. Not because I disagree with the idea of a standardized curriculum (something that most, if not all of the countries that outperform us, have), but because this is more top down reform. I don’t trust Pearson Vue (the company who will benefit greatly from CC) or Bill Gates (who has a miserable track record on education reform). And politicians (who supported CC before they didn’t) have an even worse educational record than textbook publishers.

CC standards should have come strictly from teachers instead of from curriculum experts, politicians, corporations, and billionaires. Every kindergarten teacher should have submitted his or her ideas about what the bench marks for their students should be. Each year we could have added a grade level. Dictating standards without adequate teacher /parent input is a recipe for resistance and failure. As for the CC math, benchmarks are fine but without a change in how math is taught CC will end up as a big of a disaster as “New Math” was. Maria Montessori showed the world how to teach math a century ago. The National Council of Mathematics Teachers has had pretty much the same recommendations on how to teach math for fifty years. Their strategies work. I know they work because I have used them with great success for over four decades with all ages from preschoolers to fifty-year-olds. We know how to teach math successfully; we just don’t do it.

Let’s start with the first excuse: “Not everybody can do math.” I used to use that excuse myself. But I got tired of it. I found a couple of good math teachers and I became mathematically literate. Anybody can duplicate my success. Exhibit A is that Down Syndrome kids can learn how to do basic three digit math. Of course they can’t be taught using traditional methods. I can take most people who can count the coins they find under the seat cushion and teach them fractions, decimals and percents. I have had success with many people who have experienced math failure at every level. What I learned, and what I teach, is that math is a language. It is the language of the universe. Everybody cannot be great at it, but everybody can learn to read and write it. Unfortunately, Americans are phobic about learning any language besides English.

Good math instruction consists of three parts: Experiential, Bridging, and Symbol Manipulation. Experiential learning is just what it sounds like. It’s kids playing with blocks, marbles, water, sand, or any object that can be measured and quantified. Bridging is connecting experiential knowledge to the symbols of math. Symbol manipulation is working with numbers and letters in problems and equations. Few teachers I have met are even aware of these three aspects of math instruction let alone use them. That’s the fault of many colleges. They simply do not prepare their education students properly to be excellent math teachers. So teachers stick to the symbol manipulation they get out of textbooks. Experiential and bridging get left behind.

But even teachers who know the proper steps run into problems. I was almost fired after my first year of teaching second grade in 1977. My offense was using soda bottle caps, chalk, and paper cups to teach my students math. The noise and activity offended my teammates whose students were quietly doing 60 problem worksheets day after day. All of their students wanted to be in my class because we “did fun stuff.” Today, the obstacles to good math instruction are even worse because of the accountability movement. Teachers and students are mandated to spend increasing amounts of time testing and practicing for tests. Students have no time for “playing with fun stuff.” Heavily structured play time, ubiquitous tech devices, and pop culture inspired toys all mean kids have few opportunities to quantify, measure and manipulate real objects in their home environment. Kids need experiential learning in schools now more than ever.

Three- and four-year-olds spend hours doing worksheet after worksheet. Those who are lucky enough to be in an early education program that uses play and manipulatives lose the experiential and bridging sections of instruction by third grade. I see nothing in Common Core or Pearson Vue’s CC testing that will alter this current math landscape. I suspect they could even make things worse. There is no fun in any of it. And not only can learning math be fun: it must be fun for most students to be successful. Any math teacher who does not get excited about March 14th every year does not truly understand the beauty, wonder, and magnificence of the mathematical language (3/14/15 is a particularly exciting once-in-a-lifetime day). How cool is it that an infinite shape (a circle) has an infinite number to describe it (π)? Some ancient Greeks used equations instead of prayer and sacrifices to satisfy their spiritual and religious yearnings. Socrates used dialogue to support his belief that anyone can do math. The Greeks also used tiles, sticks, and rocks to teach and learn math. It is not like teaching math is new. We know how. What we lack is will and the right kind of leadership.

Americans are usually ashamed to admit that they can’t read or write. But people openly volunteer that they are bad at math and that they expect their children to be the same. The phrase “Do the math” is the quickest way to shut most people down in a debate. If we are going to be serious about improving math skills as a country, we must elevate both the subject of math and those who are good at teaching it. If we do both of those things. as well as put fun back into math instruction, math scores will improve. You can count on it.