By Greg Sampson
A recent Times-Union story about elementary math curriculum (http://jacksonville.com/news/2015-10-20/story/parents-stumped-elementary-math-blame-common-core-standards-duval-new) and the reactions to it have prompted me to put out some thoughts about the “Common Core” and why its early education standards and curriculum are problematical. There are three basic issues: Developmental Appropriateness, Teacher Training, and Communication with Parents.
Before I go further, let me disclose that I am a public school math teacher with certification in middle and high school mathematics. I am not a career College of Ed graduate; I am in a second (or third or fourth) career as a teacher. I have taught for ten years, during some of which I was an instructional coach, tasked with helping other teachers. Currently, I am back in the classroom teaching on the high school level.
Florida teacher ethics require me to disclose that this post is my opinion and mine alone. It does not in any way represent the beliefs, policies, or positions of my employer, Duval County Public Schools, or my school, or anyone associated with either.
That being said, I do have experience with the struggles of middle school students and the mathematics they are asked to learn.
Teacher Training: I have looked at internet and social media rants about the homework elementary children are asked to do. What is 43 – 29? What the ranters object to is an attempt to teach children to think flexibly about numbers in ways that make sense to them. We can solve this subtraction problem by working backwards and adding from 29 to 43. 29 + 1 = 30. 30 + 10 = 40. Add 3 more and we have 43. How much did we add? 14: 1 and 10 and 3.
If children are to develop the fluency with arithmetic that they will need to be successful in high school math, beginning with Algebra 1, they must develop flexibility with numbers.
What that means is that children must be allowed to do arithmetic in ways that make sense to them. That solution I outlined in the paragraph above? It is not the only way to solve the problem.
Thus, the first problem with the new math (good grief, I am 58 years old and I was doing ‘new math’ when I was in elementary school) is that the internet and social media posts reflect teachers not granting students permission to make sense of numbers any way they can, but in saying to students, “Here’s the new procedure. Do it exactly this way.”
That is not an indictment of teachers, but an indictment of the rushed way the new standards were put into place. Teachers needed time for their learning and adjustment. They were not given that time.
Superintendents of Schools asked for three years of transition. States, in particular the State of Florida, told them to
I will use ‘Go jump in the lake.”
We’re talking Early Elementary education. These teachers are not specialists in mathematics; they are specialists in the development and learning processes for young children.
Give teachers the training they need? Oh, no, this is the era of Arne Duncan, test and punish policies, and school profiteers. Teacher training is not part of their plan.
So teachers struggle as much as the children in dealing with the ‘new math.’
Parental Communication: It is uncanny how quickly adults catch on to the ‘Common Core way’ of doing arithmetic once it is explained to them. Most people need less than a minute.
Why are parents upset? Like Mary Poppins, when called to account by George Banks for the chaos she has set loose, schools seem to say, “I never explain anything to anybody.”
As school professionals, we need to make communication a key focus. If we are changing the ways we are teaching children, we must communicate with parents multiple times in as many ways as possible.
Parents support teachers once they understand what is going on. They are particularly thrilled when we enable them to help their children with learning. We have to take the time to make that communication, which means that school systems need to make it a priority and stop burdening teachers with meaningless work that produces little, if any, results.
As a teacher, my three priorities are planning effective and engaging lessons, evaluating student work and providing feedback, and communicating with parents. Everything else, some of which is important, is secondary in priority.
Developmental Appropriateness: Without parents, we are nothing. We must listen to them with respect. And when an overwhelming number of parents report that their children cry, throw temper tantrums, and say, “I hate school,” we need to admit that something has gone wrong.
When experts in child development, especially early child development, say that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate for early elementary children, we need to respect their judgment.
While it is desirable for children to think flexibly about numbers, if it is done too early, it is wrong.
(Long have I argued that we should not put students into Algebra 1 before they are ready. A 7th grade level 3 FCAT result is not the determining factor. Sometimes children need to go through 8th grade math before they are ready for algebra. The State of Florida, with its inflexible policies, used to punish schools for making that decision.)
Developmental appropriateness is crucial. That is why middle school teachers struggle to reengage students who have given up on school. Those students were forced to undergo inappropriate curriculums far too early.
As a teacher of secondary mathematics, I can explain elementary math. But I have no expertise in judging the appropriateness of the age in which students are required to do that math. I must and do rely upon experts and parents who say the curriculum and standards are terrible.
It is time for a change.