A Parent’s Guide to Surviving Common Core Math

If your kids are anywhere close to school age, you’ve surely seen – or been stumped by – a Common Core math problem. Convoluted, complicated math problems that are part of schools’ efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards have been frustrating parents and students, and some exasperated parents have posted problems they call “ridiculous” online. Many of these examples have gone viral and continue to fuel parents’ concerns regarding the Common Core.

But educators and math experts say the Common Core math standards are a leap forward. Unlike previous math standards, the Common Core standards emphasize understanding and real-life application over rote memorization. The Common Core math standards are also carefully constructed to build toward understanding; according to developers, the standards repeat important concepts, such as measurement, ratios and fractions, numerous times throughout a student’s education, adding a bit of complexity each time.

Most parents, though, are more concerned with helping their kids survive math class than they are with the theoretical basis of Common Core. So we asked a math expert to share the basics of Common Core math – as well as some tips you can use the next time your child brings home confusing math homework!

Math: then and now

Think back to how you learned math in school. You probably spent a lot of time (and flipped through a lot of flashcards) memorizing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. When it came time to add and subtract bigger numbers, you learned to “carry” and “borrow,” and those basic concepts carried forward into multiplication and division. You wrote your math problems in neat little rows, filled out a lot of worksheets and spent a lot of time wondering, “When am I ever going to use this?” Pi and volume and algebra just didn’t seem all that relevant to the real world.

Laura Laing

“When you think about how we adults use math in the real work, we’re not doing it the way we learned math in the classroom,” says Laura Laing, a former math teacher who is the author of “Math for Grownups.” In the real world, we don’t break out pencil and paper and neatly line up and subtract numbers to figure out how much change we have coming after we purchase a coffee. We round up. We estimate. We play with the numbers in our heads in whatever way makes the most sense to us – and some of us are better at that than others.

The ability to manipulate numbers so you can easily work with them in real-world settings is numeracy.

“Numeracy is very similar to literacy,” Laing explains. “Literacy is not just being able to read; it’s being able to comprehend what you read, too. Numeracy is like that. It’s not just being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide; it’s the ability to understand and use numbers in flexible ways. Kids and adults who have good numeracy skills can do math problems in lots of different ways. They can apply mathematics to any situation they came across.”

What is focus of the math standards?

So the Common Core math standards focus on building understanding. First-grade math standards, for instance, require students to:

• Understand that the two digits of a two-digit number represent amounts of tens and ones.
• Given a two-digit number, mentally find 10 more or 10 less than the number, without having to count; explain the reasoning used.
•  Subtract multiples of 10 in the range 10-90 from multiples of 10 in the range 10-90 (positive or zero differences), using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.

Parents and older kids who didn’t learn math this way may be confused by the new approach. And some parents and teachers worry that kids may be unprepared to tackle more advanced concepts because they maybe missed certain topics in the switch over to Common Core. Teachers, though, are well aware of the potential for gaps and are creating lessons to help students “catch up.” The fact that Common Core repeats essential concepts at various grade levels via a spiral progression should also help students master the material.

The old way isn’t necessarily the best way

Drawing pictures to solve simple math problems may seem ridiculous to parents, but the process of physically representing and manipulating numbers helps students to really grasp the idea that the number 22, for instance, is composed of two groups of ten and two ones.

Importantly, this seemingly convoluted way to teaching numbers and basic math reflects the way children learn.

“People ask, why are we changing math?” Laing says. “But the math hasn’t changed. The way we teach it is changing because we understand more about how kids think and how they learn.”

Rote memorization and rules-based math can be “agonizing” for students, Laing says, “because it doesn’t have any meaning. It has no context.”

Common Core math, when done well, gives kids an opportunity to discover mathematical ideas and concepts – and that, the research says, is the kind of knowledge that sticks with kids.

How to help kids with homework (you don’t understand!)

But what do you do when your child comes home with math homework that involves squiggles and diagrams instead of straight-forward columns of numbers? Stop. Breathe. Instead of cursing Common Core or teaching your child “your” way of doing math, try these tips instead:

• Stay calm. “Keeping emotional levels to a manageable level is very important,” Laing says, while recognizing that “calm” is not often the first reaction of stressed-out parents who suddenly feel incapable of first-grade math. Getting visibly frustrated, though, will only cause more problems.
• Try saying, “This is hard for me” or “I didn’t learn it this way.” There’s nothing wrong with admitting to your kids that you don’t know everything. In fact, Laing says, it’s good for kids to know that adults struggle with hard things, too – and great for kids to realize that there are lots of ways to solve problems.
• Encourage your child to talk to the teacher. Instead of showing your child another way to solve the problem, encourage her to ask her teacher about the problems she doesn’t understand. Teachers want (and need!) to know when students are struggling. “Try saying, ‘How about if you talk to your teacher tomorrow, and then you come home and show me how it’s done?’” Laing suggests.
• Give the teacher a heads-up. Shoot your child’s teacher an email or text message, letting him know that you tried to help and that your student is upset. The teacher will be better prepared to help your student and may even send you some tips for next time.
• Look online. Early in the year, ask your child’s teacher what math curriculum the class is using. Most math curriculums offer a lot of information and parent support online. If your elementary school uses Everyday Math, for instance, run a search for “Everyday Math parent resources.” Many middle schools use Agile Mind, a curriculum company that provides parents with online access to student textbooks, practice problems and reteaching tools.

Keep conflicts and concerns between you and the school

Whatever you do, keep any Common Core or curriculum complaints between you and the school.

“I totally encourage parents to voice their opinions about their kids’ school and learning environment,” Laing says. “We’ve got to advocate for our kids, and if something is not meeting our kids’ needs, we need to advocate for that.”

Those kinds of discussions, though, should occur adult-to-adult and out of kids’ earshot. “If we say things like, ‘You tell your teachers that you’re not going to do this assignment,’ or you’re shouting, ‘Common Core is stupid, and I hate how it works,’ you’re putting your kids in the middle,” Laing says. “Instead, we need to give our kids the support they need to function in their environment.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.