Last night, Matthew asked me for help on his math homework. He is in fourth grade, and they are currently working on a unit on division. His end-of-module test was supposed to be this week (we’ve had two snow days), and the review packet included the following problem:
6648 ÷ 4
He had no difficulty solving the problem using long division, but he was also asked to solve using “place value disks.” He had solved the problem using this second method, but his answers weren’t matching, which meant one of his strategies had an error.
If you’re a high school teacher like I am, or like most parents it seems, this might be confusing. It was to me. I learned division one way, and one way only. Long division. So like many other times this year since our school district implemented its new math program—Eureka Math—I hopped on over to the district linked YouTube videos so I could figure out how to help my 9-year-old with his homework.
There’s a reason I became an English teacher and not a mathematician.
I’ve watched a lot of YouTube math videos this year. Our school district rolled out Eureka Math in September. To its credit, the district has hosted parent informational meetings at each school to discuss the new program and how it differs from the “traditional” ways we may have learned math more than 25 years ago. The cafeteria was standing room only for the meeting at my sons’ school, as frustrated parents sought more information.
Before I go on, let me say that this post isn’t about how much I dislike the new math program or the Common Core (to which the program is closely aligned). In fact, it’s the exact opposite. I think if I had been exposed to the math program that my boys are using, I might have not only understood math a lot more when I was in school, I would have liked it, too.
The way I see it, Eureka Math and other Common Core aligned programs emphasize a conceptual understanding of math over simply memorizing algorithms. For example, in the problem above, to use the second strategy, my son had to have an understanding of place value. By approaching division—and multiplication—in this way, students develop better number sense. The why not just the what.
So where am I going with this?
When I logged into my Facebook account this morning, someone had posted about three neighborhood boys who were offering to shovel driveways, now for $50 or later for $10 each. It was still snowing, so if they came back later, there would be more snow. Understandably, this makes no sense. Several people joked that the boys must be learning “common core” math, obviously criticizing the new approach. One commenter called the new math ridiculous and that the school district should be ashamed.
I have a few problems with comments like these.
First, in the context of the specific situation, if the boys were out offering shoveling services, they must have been in middle school, at least. Why does this matter? Because the new math program isn’t offered in the middle school. And even if it were, I seriously doubt a few months of instruction in a new math program could be the reason that the boys couldn’t figure out that offering their services at $30 versus $50 doesn’t make much business sense. My other son, a 2nd grader, could figure that out, so clearly the problem isn’t the math program.
I’m being nitpicky, I know. But I see comments like these all the time. Someone posts his child’s math homework online and then goes on to complain how even someone with an advanced degree couldn’t figure this stuff out. Yes, that’s right. I have a Masters Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and I had to go to YouTube to figure out how to do 4th grade math.
And you know what? That’s okay.
In fact, I’d argue that’s how it should be. Frankly, I would have a bigger problem if math education—or any educational program—remained stagnant, especially given what we know from new research. My son is learning the “old” way, but he is also being taught additional strategies that require him to make conceptual sense of what he is learning.
As a teacher, I also know that there are many criticisms about the Common Core, many of them fair. But overall, I agree with Kelly Gallagher, who writes in his most recent book that while there are flaws in the Common Core standards, these standards are typically stronger than what they replaced. At least in language arts, the Common Core standards move us to a better place, even if there is still more work to be done. Though I’m not a math teacher, I imagine the Common Core math standards work the same way (in fact, most elementary teachers and math curriculum supervisors I’ve spoken to agree with this).
Recent backlash against the Common Core has focused on the high-stakes testing that has resulted. Unfortunately, I think many parents have confused the standards (Common Core) with the assessments (high stakes testing). The standards, as I’ve said, are good. The assessments, not so good. The same can be said for the curriculum. While many textbook publishers claim their math programs are “Common Core aligned,” the fact is, they are not, as this recent study clearly demonstrates. So the problem isn’t about the Common Core, but about poor materials. (No doubt, with widespread budget-tightening in school districts, there’s likely been a lack of sufficient professional development to help teachers make the adjustments effectively.)
What does this all mean? Why am I spending part of my day off writing about this? As a teacher and as parent, I guess find conversations like this to be frustrating. Too many conversations about educational practice are incomplete, uninformed, or worse, ill-informed. I can only imagine the difficult task that elementary school teachers have in front of them, as they try to do what’s best for their students as well as stand up the scrutiny of parents and lawmakers, who have now used the standards to play political football.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 200 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.