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Why the Latest Approach to Learning Math Is Driving Students and their Families to Tears

Recently, I saw a Facebook post by an educator teaching sixth grade for the first time. In it, she begged for help from anyone who had taught Common Core math to sixth graders. Her school district hadn’t provided much training, and she was clearly in over her head.

Her post was a perfect illustration of a point Elizabeth Green made in a July New York Times Magazine article: “(New Math) – (New Teaching) = Failure.” (This is a much better headline, by the way, than the one you will see if you click on the link.) The article explains how new curricula, new approaches and yet another round of “new math” are all bound to fail, just as they did in the 1960s and '80s, thanks to a lack of extensive teacher training.

I know about those earlier failures from personal experience. Because I was taught Max Beberman’s approach to math in high school, I definitely suffer from “innumeracy”—a lack of understanding of mathematical concepts. I attribute the fact that I need a calculator to do most anything math-related to the failure of this early effort at new math. Despite being a good student, I was so turned off by the curriculum that I never entered another math class after 11th grade. I dropped out of helping my own kids with math homework before middle school.

Thus, when I tried to help one of my granddaughters with her second-grade math homework, the results were less than ideal. She brought home a standard worksheet from Everyday Mathematics, a curriculum aligned with Common Core math. I read the hint to parents at the top and asked her if she had practiced this at school yet. She claimed she had not. Well, how hard could this be? We plunged ahead.

The first problem wasn’t too bad. We took a pile of pennies and distributed them in rows so each member of her family had the same amount. I ruled out the dog in the interest of getting this done. Unfortunately, the 5 rows of pennies got pushed a bit, but after readjusting them, she counted and completed the answer sheet: 43 pennies added up to 8 for each person plus 3 left over.

Problem two told us to use something else and divide it between 2, 3 and 4 people. I grabbed a handful of Pirate Booty snacks, and she put the pieces in two rows. Then she counted and filled in the answer sheet. “Where’s the remainder?” I asked. “I ate it,” she replied, “so I put zero.” Perfect example of how 7-year-olds think.

When we got down to real problems with no props, she was lost. She had no idea how many times 3 could go into 14 and what the remainder would be. So I foolishly asked, “Well, what’s 3 times 4?” I thought when she saw 12 was close to 14, we could get the right answer. She told me they hadn’t learned multiplication yet. I told her we should wait until Mom gets home to finish her homework.

I fear the mathematicians who designed this newest new math may have forgotten that second-graders are not abstract thinkers. Truth be told, most 7-year-olds don’t care about learning many different ways to solve a problem. They can’t handle several variables at once in a word problem. They just want to know how to get an answer. So this newest new math approach may not align with what we know about child development.

I understand that the Common Core math curriculum is designed by expert mathematicians to help kids learn the principles behind the basic math operations. It is a spiraling curriculum, meaning it will revisit the same concepts over and over again. At some point, my granddaughter will either get it or become a math-hater like her grandmother.

Her cousin in another state has also struggled with her second-grade math. When her mother noticed a worksheet that came home with every answer erased and the correct answer written in, she asked her child if she needed some help to understand the assignment. My granddaughter replied, “The teacher told us the right answers. I’m bad at math. I don’t understand what to do.”

I’m not qualified to debate the new math approach versus the “learn your math facts” approach. But there has to be something wrong when two of my grandkids have declared themselves math haters and no good at math by second grade.

Green’s article in the Times Magazine provides some answers as to why kids are so confused by this newest new math. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the curriculum is appropriate for our youngest students. The larger problem is that American schools do not produce strong math students because we don’t take the time to teach our educators how to teach it. 

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, educational and social policy expert Diane Ravitch includes a chapter called “Strengthen the Profession.” In it, she contends that teachers must be well educated and masters of the subjects they are teaching to be effective and respected professionals. In addition, they need to be mentored, with schools providing, “frequent opportunities for professional development, collaboration, and intellectual stimulation….”

Unfortunately, in our current environment, Ravitch’s recommendations for creating great teachers represent the exception rather than the rule. Like the educator who made the Facebook plea for help, most of our teachers receive little or no training in how to implement the new Common Core standards. Unlike in Japan, where teachers receive extensive training in how to deliver mathematical instruction, Green points out that, “Once again, the reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them…most teachers are unprepared and children are baffled, leaving parents furious.” She urges her readers to read the Twitter rant by comedian Louis C.K. where he takes aim at the Common Core and math instruction in particular.

In a flurry of tweets, the comedian wrote,

“My kids used to love math.  Now it makes them cry.  Thanks standardized testing and common core! …It's all about these tests.  It feels like a dark time…It's this massive stressball that hangs over the whole school.  The kids’ teachers trying to adapt to these badly written notions.”

Louis C.K. followed up on the theme during an interview with David Letterman, parodying his 9- and 12-year-old daughters’ struggles with the pressures of standardized testing and Common Core math. “If a school’s kids don’t test well,” C.K., the son of a math teacher, says, “they burn the school down.” He goes on to lampoon the new math: “Bill has 3 goldfish. He buys 2 more. How many dogs live in London?” It’s funny, precisely because most of us recognize the grain of truth therein.

Like Louis C.K., many parents are struggling to figure out the directions to their children’s math homework each night. This leads to battles at home and extreme frustration, even for those kids lucky enough to have an adult who is willing to help them. My daughters, both highly educated and excellent math students, can’t figure out what their kids are being asked to do. Ultimately, one resorted to re-teaching the math at home, using such forbidden tactics as memorizing math facts, borrowing and regrouping.

Common sense would dictate implementing the new materials gradually. Right now, all kids grades K to 12 are being inundated with new approaches, as are their teachers and families. A more gradual, phased in approach, starting with the youngest grades, might enable more thorough teacher training. Standards and goals are always important factors in shaping curriculum, but how children are taught always matters more than the factoids we are trying to cram into their heads.

By rushing to implement a shiny new curriculum, we are squashing the creativity and original thinking that may or may not underpin this new approach to teaching math, both for students and teachers. Unfortunately, the fastest way to the goal line is teaching to the test, using a “drill and skill” approach. Teachers are trapped between the new approach, which calls for constructing knowledge, and the importance of finding the right answer that is rewarded on fill-in-the-bubble tests.

In addition to this fundamental conflict between teaching kids to think critically and getting right answers on standardized tests, there is an even bigger issue reflected in the plea of the sixth grade teacher for someone to help her do a good job teaching her students the Common Core math. Teacher training takes time and money, both of which are in short supply these days. Schools are spending finite resources on corporate education consultants, new teacher evaluation systems, and technology that allows all students to take the Common Core tests at the same time; what they are not spending money on is proper training for teachers.

In education, the how matters at least as much as the what. The lack of basic knowledge of child development, coupled with the desire for easily measured progress and teacher accountability, undermine the notion that truly understanding something is more important than memorizing right answers. If parents are expected to supervise homework when they don’t understand how to approach the work; if teachers are expected to implement new approaches to subject matter without appropriate training and understanding—then there’s just no way the new curriculum won’t fail.

How’s that for an unhappy equation?

(For a spot-on parody of the “new math,” watch Tom Lehrer’s brilliant performance.)

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