Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
June 9, 2014
There is a special type of frustration experienced by parents who can't understand their child's elementary school math homework.
Bayside mother Mary Cyganiak watched her son complete what seemed like cumbersome tasks to solve basic arithmetic problems on his homework so frequently this year, she started jotting notes back to his fourth grade teacher: "This seems like a really inefficient way to solve the problems."
And then: "This is a waste of time."
Across the country, Cyganiak and millions of parents are perplexed by the changes in math instruction resulting from teachers shifting to the Common Core State Standards, the academic goals in English and mathematics adopted several years ago by 44 states. The standards are currently being implemented in schools and are tied to new state achievement tests. The nationwide educational initiative is meant to increase the rigor of American education, challenging children to strategize rather than memorize. But the standards have also become controversial, particularly in the last year, mainly because of politics but also because of concerns over testing and the bumpiness of implementing them in public schools.
For parents, there's perhaps no better evidence of something new happening in schools than math homework that looks foreign to the kinds of problems they were asked to do as schoolchildren.
Embodying that sentiment, popular comedian Louis C.K. recently tweeted his daughters' math homework problems to millions of followers, pushing out clubfooted questions that he said had made his daughter cry.
For some, "common core math" has become one more piece of ammunition to rail against the standards.
"We want to help our kids, but we can't," Cyganiak said. "That's frustrating."
The majority of math professors and math education professors, however, say the standards are sound and that Common Core math looks more like the way the rest of the developed world teaches mathematics to its young people.
America lags many other developed countries, especially Asian countries, in test scores on math exams.
A key issue is that the new standards are asking children to understand and be able to explain the structural underpinnings of mathematics reasoning. That's different from decades past, when it was enough to memorize formulas and patterns to achieve the right answer.
Kevin McLeod, who has taught graduate and undergraduate math at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1987, suggested the need for stronger math instruction is because many university students arrive needing remedial or high school math courses.
He said the prior emphasis on racing to get the right answer rather than thinking through a problem has resulted in students who "get very good at the procedures," but, "half the time they have no idea what they're computing."
The Common Core standards outline what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade, which includes explaining the "why" behind what they're learning.
So while students are asked to sketch a visual representation of the concepts behind the math, parents are left wondering why their child is being asked to draw instead of multiply.
For example, double-digit multiplication can be represented through an "area model" drawing, or a square with hash marks that represent the units being multiplied.
Or take fractions. Number lines are drawn to show what happens when you add or subtract numerals, then fractions.
The old pie graph to show a fraction of a whole? That's out, says William Schmidt, professor of mathematics at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
"It doesn't go anywhere," said Schmidt, who said his studies of international math achievement provided some basis for the development of the Common Core standards.
"It's not that kids are going to add and subtract on a number line for life," he said. "But it gives them an understanding of the concept that numbers go on and on. What it's about is giving them a deeper understanding of the concept. Many parents weren't exposed to math in that fashion."
He acknowledges that the shift in teaching can be a frustration point for parents.
That's because as children are asked to solve the same problem in different ways to underscore the underlying math concepts, it's possible that some may get confused and ultimately not master any of the methods.
Usually, children are allowed to solve the problem in the one way they prefer by the time a unit test comes around. That's why many parents perceive all the other exercises as meaningless. The Common Core also emphasizes solving math word problems, dubbed "constructed response" problems, which teachers are still learning to write. Sometimes these questions ask children to undo, and then fix, a problem that has been incorrectly solved.
Cyganiak, the Bayside mother, remembers one time earlier this year when her husband tried to solve a confusing word problem on her son's homework.
"He got it wrong," Cyganiak said.
Other word problems make unusual references, Cyganiak said, such as saying that children jumped rope for "two-thirds of an hour," or that a child brought "six and three-quarters small carrot cakes to school."
Mike Steele, a mathematics professor at UWM and also a former middle-school math teacher, said teachers are still on a learning curve to write the kinds of context-rich problems that meet the expectations outlined by the Common Core.
Many teachers are forging ahead without full-fledged resources to support them. Most textbooks have not caught up to the Common Core yet, and even if they did, not all schools would be in a financial position to adopt a new cycle.
Steele said other teachers are having to refresh their skills to keep up with content changes under the Common Core. For example, the standards emphasize students learning "transformational geometry," or how to use math to flip, turn, slide and dilate a figure.
There also is more emphasis on statistics and probability in middle school and high school math classes, Steele said.
Krista Lesiecki, a math teacher at Homestead High School in Mequon, said her colleagues have moved away from asking high schoolers to do 50 questions of the same type from a textbook, in favor of asking them to apply the information they've learned in different ways, or to different topics.
But Lesiecki also has sympathy for parents witnessing the shift in elementary school math.
As a mother of triplets in third grade in the Cedarburg School District, Lesiecki has an unusual window into schooling at that level, too.
"In the summer, I taught them all how to subtract the way we did, with borrowing," Lesiecki said. "Then this year, they came home with these pictures in their homework and I was like, 'This is a total waste of time.' "
Lesiecki has come around. Today, each one of her children solve the same types of subtraction problems slightly differently—adding to subtract, for example, or using tangible bars and squares as counting aides.
"My children now are better at math in third grade than I probably was in fifth," she said.
Some of the frustration parents feel also is aimed at the new tests that are tied to the grade-level goals outlined in the Common Core in math and English.
New state tests Starting in the 2014-'15 school year, a new online exam known as Smarter Balanced will take the place of the Wisconsin state achievement test in English and math.
Wade Tillett, associate professor at UW-Whitewater, said the Common Core standards are actually similar to recommendations from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 20 years ago, to try to ramp up math education in America.
But it's not a cure-all, he said. And he worries about the connection between the standards and testing.
"The test scores will be linked back to teacher effectiveness," Tillett said.
Teachers may feel pressure to take shortcuts in their teaching to meet certain test score result goals, he added.
"Looking at the Common Core as a big checklist rather than following best practices would be a mistake," he said.
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