Ralphie’s math vs. the Common Core

January 4, 2013

in 21st century schools

Like half of America, I spent some time watching “A Christmas Story” over the holidays. Re-watching is probably the more accurate term, since this viewing was approximately number 429. And each time another year passes and I watch that movie again, I find myself even more in awe of the scenes in Ralphie’s classroom. The teacher leaving the kids alone in the classroom to go outside? Yeah, right. Teaching the words to Yankee Doodle? Sure.

This year, I was thinking most about how our math instruction has changed over the past sixty years. I realize that a screenshot from a Christmas movie isn’t a fair representation of the curricular scope covered in the 1950s, but there’s no doubt that expectations have been raised since then. When Ralphie was nine years old, the math problems he had to solve looked like this:

Ralphie's math vs. the Common Core: How do we balance increased rigor with the developmental needs of our students?

In 2012/2013, third grade math problems look like this (from the New York Common Core Sample Assessments):

And they look like this (would YOU, a grown adult, know how to solve this problem without re-reading it several times?):


Sometimes I wonder if the people making curriculum decisions think students are machines whose minds can be programmed to be 10,000 times smarter than the machines from decades ago. Do they realize we’re talking about little kids here? Have they spent any time with actual children? Three digit addition was hard for third graders in the 1950s, and it’s hard for them today. We can’t keep expecting more and more and more of our students and believe that with the right learning environment, their very young minds (and developing attention spans) will somehow be able to keep up.

I get the feeling I’m not supposed to say any of this, that putting these kinds of ideas out there will lead to accusations that I don’t believe in our students. It seems politically incorrect to imply that there is a limit to how much a child can do. I’m supposed to make a broad idealistic statement here that all children who enter through our classroom doors would be fully capable of solving multi-step algebra word problems at the age of eight, if only they had optimal schools and teachers. But I’m just not convinced. Is the old adage that students will rise to their teachers’ expectations supposed to apply to every aspect of a curriculum that seems to double in rigor every ten years? And if students aren’t meeting those expectations, is it solely the school’s fault?

I’m constantly hearing the implication–and even the outright statement on occasion–that America’s schools are “failing” because of poor teaching. I don’t see how anyone can look at those math problems above and maintain the belief that teaching is easy and educators have it made with their “6.5 hour work days” and summers off. I wish that people outside the classroom would consider the incredible level of skill and expertise needed to make 21st century curricula accessible for 30 kids simultaneously, especially when those children exhibit an astoundingly wide range of academic abilities and socio-emotional issues.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying Ralphie’s classroom is the model of good education and we should go back to teaching only computation, fact memorization, and rote learning. Nor do I think it’s impossible for our kids to be successful with today’s curriculum. Increased rigor is a good thing. Problem solving and critical thinking should be the foundation of the way our students learn, and even very young children are capable of it.

I’m just advocating for a little more awareness of what’s developmentally appropriate, and a little more compassion and understanding for the students and teachers who are struggling to keep up with all that’s required of them.

Can I get some acknowledgment that what we’re doing in the classroom these days is HARD? It’s never been done before in the history of schooling. We’re attempting to give a world class education to EVERY child who walks through our doors, and we’re teaching skills that weren’t even named fifty years ago. This is ground-breaking, revolutionary stuff, and that needs to be recognized instead of glossed over in the rush to criticize teachers for falling short. Similarly, I’d like to see less bewilderment over how poorly our students score on tests, and a little more appreciation of how much these tests require of students and how hard kids need to work if they’re going to meet the ever-increasing demands.

In 2013, I hope that we’ll keep moving forward and help our students achieve even more. They deserve to have the very best education. But the way to provide that quality education is to raise the bar thoughtfully and intentionally, and do it while providing the support that teachers and students need to be successful. I’m not sure of what that looks like on a practical level, but I figure having some conversations about this is a step in the right direction.

What are your thoughts? How has your curriculum changed over the years? How do we balance the increased rigor of the Common Core with the developmental needs of our students?

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cindy January 4, 2013 at 10:14 am

THANK YOU! Excellent, thought-provoking article. I posted a link on my blog. A lot of people need to read this and have a discussion!

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2 Angela Watson January 4, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Thanks, Cindy! I’d love to get some good discussions going on this. Thanks for opening up the dialogue on your blog, as well.

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3 Raye January 4, 2013 at 10:46 am

I totally agree with you! I gave my class (4th/5th grade) a math facts test just before we went on winter break. 60 problems, 3 minutes. I have 4 students (out of 29) who got 100% of them done and correct. Just 4. I have students who got 1 right in 3 minutes. Yet I will be blamed that these children don’t know their math facts (something we start teaching in 2ND GRADE–I know because I taught 2nd last year and we had to show proof that they knew their 0-5 facts).

It’s frustrating. I think that many times we just move on, without really showing that the students know or understand what is going on, especially with math. I think the Common Core is a good thing. Perfect? Of course not, but definitely a step in the right direction. Children need rigor in order to succeed in HS and college. However, a lot of what we ask students to do, isn’t very developmentally appropriate.

A couple years ago, my district partnered with the Institute for Learning and they created a bunch of “high rigor” writing units for us. Except that these “high rigor” writing units have students sitting through FIVE ENTIRE LESSONS OF TEACHER TALK before they ever really even pick up a pencil. That’s not rigor and it sure isn’t developmentally appropriate. They were created by researchers, not teachers. I doubt very much any of those folks who created them had ever been in front of a classroom of real children.

Another example, we are using Reading Street for our weekly reading program (its our 2nd year with it). I like it, the stories are good and its a very balanced approach to literacy instruction. However, my district had grade-level based PD this summer (ie all 4th grade teachers from the district at one venue) and our task was to come up with higher order questions to ask while we’re engaged in the shared reading. The 4th grade team did this independently–each school worked together and made questions based on their students needs. But the other grades did it collectively and then sent out a list of questions we’re supposed to ask our kids while we read the stories together. I get the concept but my kids aren’t like the kids across town or even in the school three blocks over! You can’t simply give them “cookie cutter” questions and expect that to be rigorous.

I stick by my motto a lot….smile and nod and then close my door and teach to my students strengths and needs. It can’t be cookie-cutter because the KIDS aren’t cookie cutter!

(If you can’t tell, you struck a cord with me on this one lol)

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4 Angela Watson January 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Raye, thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you pointed out that memorizing basic math facts is still challenging for kids these days. Expecting them to do so much more on top of that requires a tremendous amount of work on the part of the teacher, parents, AND students.

I, too, hope that the Common Core leads to more time spent on each skill and concept so we can ensure students have demonstrated mastery before moving on. That’s something that most of us have not had the luxury of doing in recent years, and our students have suffered because of it. I remember having to teach my 3rd graders metric AND customary units of measurement for length, width, temperature, AND volume all in a two week period. Do you think my students really understood or remembered any of that? The new pacing is much more realistic. Depth over breadth.

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5 Shauna January 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I looked at that New York sample assessment for third grade at the beginning of the year and it’s been giving me nightmares ever since! The ELA test features a short story from Tolstoy; the first time I saw it I honestly thought the third grade test must have been mixed up with eighth grade or something. Unfortunately, it was the correct test, and apparently this is the type of literature the test writers think third graders should be able to read and comprehend. While I agree in theory with the increased rigor expected from teachers and students as we transition to the Common Core, I also completely agree with your thoughts about how our instruction needs to be developmentally appropriate. Should we really expect our third graders to be reading and understanding Tolstoy?

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6 Yelena January 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Shauna, I’d be curious to know which of the Tolstoy’s short stories was featured on the ELA test. I’m asking this because although Tolstoy is most famous in the US for his novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he in fact wrote a series of children tales and fables. He intended these to be used as primers by young kids who just learned to read (he actually taught reading, writing and arithmetic to peasant children, so he wrote with a specific audience in mind, so to speak). These stories follow very precise and simple internal structure and have short sentences that help young children understand the text. At least they do in Russian. In fact, Russian children are introduced to some of these stories as early as first grade.

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7 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Thanks for sharing that, Shauna and Yelena! I’m not familiar with Tolstoy’s writings for children or the Tolstoy passage for third graders–will have to look into that.

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8 Barbara January 4, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Thanks, Angela, for this thought-provoking piece. I especially liked the part where you wonder whether test writers have actually met a real-life kid. Interestingly enough, it seems like our test-writers and their companies stand to make BIG bucks off of assessing our littlest learners, so I’m not sure they’ll ever see the need for things to change. As a staff, we completed a few practice STAAR (TX) test items (from several different levels between third and eighth grades) on our first-day back from winter break last January and we as educated professionals were struggling to answer several of the items correctly …. yikes …. throw in the fact that many of these kids come to school hungry or sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden or depressed and you have a recipe for failure, not success. We need a stronger voice with our legislators until they hear us say, “enough!”

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9 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I appreciate that, Barbara. The money-making aspect of testing is another can of worms, entirely! We have to always remember that corporations are making big bucks off of the testing systems. They’re in it to make a profit, not to improve education, and so we need to think critically and carefully about how we use those resources and allow them to impact our teaching.

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10 Sally DeCost January 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I totally agree! The children are expected to perform more and more complex tasks, yet they are still little kids! They still need time to run and climb and sing and create, and just once in a while, do nothing! It worries me that we are creating more problems with our youth by putting them under this much pressure without allowing them time to do what children need to do.

I also agree that the schools of the 50s aren’t the best answers either. However, there must be some “in between” where children can learn to think without giving up their childhood!

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11 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Sally, I, too, wish there was more time for kids to be kids. Play is such an important part of learning, and I hope that it doesn’t get completely lost in the pressure for children to do more rigorous academics. Learning and play CAN go hand in hand.

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12 Yelena January 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm

You bring up some excellent points, particularly about standardized testing. However, I am very curious about the term “developmentally appropriate” in the context of math curriculum. (I am not a teacher and have only a limited experience with the US school system)

Much of the K, 1st and 2nd grade math is too simplistic and boring. My 5-year old believes there are two kinds of math – the stupid math (his words) and the fun math. Stupid math is when I ask him how much is 5+3 or 10-5 (not because he always knows the right answer, he’s not that good with the number facts yet, but because “it is about nothing and Mom already knows the answer”. The fun math, for him, is when he learns multiplication with two mirrors, learns about logic gates with dominoes, and learns geometry (and even exponentiation) with origami.

I’m not saying math facts and fractions are stupid or unnecessary. We do need them. And it’s probably not realistic to build a math curriculum that’s entirely play-based and exploratory (nor is it necessary, IMHO). But it seems the curriculum is unbalanced and favors arithmetic and number manipulation skills over mathematical thinking.

I come from a different (and also far from ideal) school system. And no, I didn’t get to learn trigonometry at 6 and calculus at 10. I did, however, knew my multiplication tables by the end of the 2nd grade and fractions by the end of 4th grade, but so did most of the kids in my very average public inner city school. It wasn’t particularly fun, but it wasn’t all that difficult either.

I am in no way saying that teachers in the US are not doing their job right. I think US teachers are working very hard and are very dedicated. But something is not right with the system itself. (Sorry for the long-winded comment and my grammar).

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13 Maggie Strickland January 6, 2013 at 8:37 am

Yelena has hit the nail on the head. If we are only going to keep tweaking our same system, there will be no marked improvement. I retired from the public schools in 2011 after 40 years of experience. Since that time I have been reading, reading, reading about the newest research and about the successes of school systems in other countries. If you look at the Finnish system you will see they begin reading instruction much later than we do. (There are those who roll their eyes at the mere suggestion of learning something from another country. They are part of the problem.) Our push for reading in kindergarten actually creates problems for some students later on, especially boys. (read Lillian Katz) Think of all those children in Title I classes. Should there be any exposure to reading in kindergarten? Yes, I believe that with many children we should begin at age four working with them in a very language-rich environment, exposing them to all sorts of print, stories, poems, chants, etc. We just should NOT be asking them to read arbitrary lists of words or any words unless they begin on their own. Reading is a very complex process. It needs time. BUT, new research about children and math indicates that we are born with some mathematical abilities which we should be taking advantage of early on. Put two toddlers on the floor. Put one cookie in front of one. Give the other 3 0r 4. What happens? That’s right. There will be some whining, crying, grabbing going on. That’s math, people. For how many ages have people been going to market to shop without being able to read? Many, many, many. There may be some aspects of Common Core that are wonderful, but it is not the answer, just as testing is not the answer unless you happen to be a company named Pearson.
I remain so frustrated for our children. I will continue to speak to this issue as long as I am able.

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14 Yelena January 6, 2013 at 9:19 am

Maggie, that’s another thing I forgot to mention. In many other countries children do not start formal instructions until they are 7 or 8 years old. In the US it’s 5 (I think it’s also 5 in the UK, but not sure). 5 might be ok for some kids, but most are simply too young. This doesn’t mean kids should not be learning. But they should learn through play and discovering things with the guidance of teachers, not necessarily with their direct instructions. And testing and test-based curriculum – it’s just about the worst thing that can happen to early learners, IMHO.

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15 Deb January 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I read about the Finnish educational system and was amazed at their success. However, 97% of the people speak the Finnish language. Here in the U.S., you are lucky if there are children who even read in English. So, I am not sure that is a good comparison. I agree that we’ve got to stop tweaking the system and trying new things…or, as many of us say, the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth.

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16 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Yelena, I really like your point about challenging our students. Rote learning and fact memorization IS boring. Kids like to solve real problems, not made-up ones that are presented in the textbook just so they have work to do. My guess is that the “fun math” your little one is referring to involves solving authentic problems. That’s something that’s being emphasized more and more in school and it’s a very good thing.

Maggie, the concept of kids starting school later is an interesting one. Part of me supports that and sees it working well in countries like Finland, while the other part of me worries about kids who will sit in front of a TV for seven years straight if we push schooling back. Regardless, our system of moving the first grade curriculum of the 1980s up to the modern kindergarten curriculum is not developmentally appropriate, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts–I agree 100%.

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17 Maggie Strickland January 6, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Angela, I didn’t mean that the children in Finland aren’t in school until they’re 7. They are in school, but they are not being exposed to formal instruction in reading until age 7.
“Finnish children do not begin primary school until they are seven years old. But from the age of eight months, all children have access to free, full-day daycare and kindergarten. Finland has had universal access to daycare in place since 1990, and of all preschool since 1996.” That quote is from The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

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18 Angela Watson January 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Thanks for clarifying this Maggie. Sorry, I should have put more thought into my reply! My understanding is that the schooling Finnish children receive prior to age seven is not focused on academic skills but on socio-emotional development and play. Having these opportunities prepares them for formal learning in significant ways. I know that free high-quality daycare from birth to age seven is probably not going to be a reality here in America, so I focused on how a later start for formal academic instruction would affect kids here. It’s a much different story in Finland, and my reply didn’t acknowledge that. I would love to see American children have access to the high-quality early childhood education that many children in Europe have. That would change the entire scope of this discussion.

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19 Elisa Waingort January 5, 2013 at 9:27 am

The elephant is in the room and it’s time everyone talk about him. Thank you for your post. It’s not about whether or not we think children are capable of doing “the work” – increasingly more of it and more complex at the wrong grades or more scripted at the wrong grades. Rather than freeing teachers to teach THEIR students, today’s classrooms demand that teachers follow a script that obviates the learners in their classrooms. More kids left behind? You betcha! The problem is that “the work” has been translated to mean more and more content and, particularly, developmentally inappropriate content for kids at all levels. Play has been thrown out the window; in fact, it has become a dirty word. We have less and less time to do the important things (building character, critical thinking, inquiry, collaboration, conversation, etc.) in classrooms because the curriculum dictates the content that must be taught in classrooms and it’s not about working together and collaborating on projects. Yes, teachers are working very hard but it seems that more and more teachers are working very hard at the wrong things. Instead of elevating the profession of education, we are dumbing it down and losing kids and teachers along the way.

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20 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Well said, Elisa!! More is not always better. I especially appreciate your point about how the teaching profession is becoming more demanding and yet is simultaneously being dumbed down.

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21 Marge January 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

Thanks so much for your thoughts. You hit the nail on the head. The one thing I appreciate the most is that this is a nationwide issue and not just in my district. This is my 40th year teaching. I still love it. I like the Common Core, especially for math. Number sense is so important to our students. Too many ‘know’ basic facts (I’m primary) but can not relate and ‘see’ the way numbers work. Common core gives me time to develop this.
However, we in education, are not the ‘experts’ today. We do not have the respect of years ago. It disappoints me that our opinion of kids and their learning is trumped by our supposed desire to have the summers off and work 9-3. Somehow the experts aren’t educators at all. I fear this will not change until the public understands that most of us work hard, care about kids, and really do understand what they need to learn. Unfortunately the ‘odd ducks’ of our profession often get the press. Parent and student letters of appreciation, ‘aha’ moments from students, and team work with colleagues keeps me going.
Again, Angela, THANKS!

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22 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:28 pm

You’re welcome, Marge. And no, this is not just happening to you and your district. I share your fears about how educators are no longer the experts on education.

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23 Linda January 5, 2013 at 8:39 pm

I totally agree! Kids are having a harder time enjoying school because of the higher demands placed on them, and teachers are feeling the pressure as well, which just makes for a grumpy situation. Another concern I have with “modern” math is that you have to be an excellent reader and writer to accomplish many of the tasks. We also have trouble with parents complaining that they don’t understand the math homework they are trying to help the kids with. (What goes around comes around. I’m hoping the pendulum swings a bit back to centre again.)
I do keep high standards in my classroom, but let’s dial it simpler a bit, to let the basic math sink in a bit deeper and firmer – at appropriate ages – before dumping them into things like algebra.

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24 Cheryl January 6, 2013 at 11:32 am

I’ve been in the classroom for 30 years and have seen many things come and go….and come and go again. I am also a student of Child Development. All I can say is that Piaget and Montessori must be spinning in their graves. I am so tired of being forced to implement new curriculum and strategies developed by “experts”. We know what our children need and how they learn. I am the expert!

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25 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Agreed, Linda and Cheryl. Thank you both for chiming in.

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26 Mark January 6, 2013 at 7:15 pm

I teach honors chemistry to 10th and 11th graders. They are singularly incapable of using the density = mass / volume equation to find mass or volume. They are incapable of dividing a number by ten without pulling out a calculator. They don’t understand that when you divide a number by a larger number, the answer needs to be smaller than one. They don’t understand that when you take an average, the answer has to be between the smallest value and the largest value you averaged together. I can’t imagine them being able to understand let alone solve the kinds of problems you set forth as examples for nine-year-olds. It’s scary how lacking in mathematical literacy even our best and brightest students are.

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27 Angela Watson January 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

How interesting to read the perspective of a high school teacher on this! Thanks, Mark. I hope that the Common Core will help children to think deeply about math and science so that by the time students get to you, these issues will no longer be happening.

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28 Mark January 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm

We are expected to implement the Common Core at the high school level, at the top of the staircase of complexity without the supporting foundation and without any real direction or guidance. I love the idea of the Common Core but am appalled at how poorly it is being implemented.

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29 Jenise January 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm

You hit the nail on the head, Angela! I agree that a strength of CC is depth vs. breadth. Is CC developmentally best practices? I’m not sure. Yes, most kids CAN meet the standards, but do they NEED to in order to be successful adults? Our education system is failing our students, not teachers. For example in my state, LA, instead of having CC implemented in PK-1, then adding a grade each year, they decided that grades 2-12 had to implement CC AND most of our previous state standards until ’14-15. Our texts and resources no longer align, but are we allowed to buy new? of course not! When are children allowed to color and cut (fine motor skills) without teachers pressured to make EVERYTHING rigorous? When are they allowed to just listen to and enjoy a book? When are they allowed to just practice? The Hierarchy of Learning has a knowledge and comprehension level for a reason…how can our kids ever make higher order connections if they don’t haven’t had a chance to internalize the foundations? Please don’t misunderstand, I am all for teaching higher order thinking skills…I withdrew my kids from a parochial school and enrolled them where I teach (public) because they weren’t getting HOT at all at the original school. But I do feel there has to be a balance.

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30 Kevin January 6, 2013 at 8:42 pm

I am not an educator, but I do enjoy helping my Grand-Daughter with her studies. Keeli is 6 and started First grade this year at the age of five. I have been worried also at the level of math problems she has to solve. Four digit addition and subtraction for a 6 year old first grader is a bit much if you ask me. She has a easy time with single and double digits, but as they increase she does struggle. Instead of complaining to the School Board I introduced her to Khan Acadmey. We sit and work on these problems together both on screen and written form. She still struggles a bit , but it helps. I do however believe this level of math is over the top and I would like to see a system where each student can progress at their own inherent pace. I had a problem with this as a child, being kept with everyone else in my class, I become bored and retreated within myself, never studing and ultimately caring less about my grades. I do not wish this for my Grand-Daughter! Anyway, just thought I would add my two-cents, and give credit to Khan for their effort!

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31 Mark January 6, 2013 at 8:47 pm

I make my entire chemistry course available on YouTube (youtube.com/markrosengarten) and people all over the world use it. I’ve gotten thank you notes from all corners of the planet. Know who doesn’t use it? My own students. For whatever reason my own students refuse to make use of the resources that are available to them, coming up with all manner of excuses to not watch them. It’s very frustrating.

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32 Cori January 6, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Thank you so much for writing this post. I could not agree more with your thoughts. I teach Civics and Economics to 12 and 13 year olds. Unlike math, where students have been working on similar processes, Civics and Economics are foreign and very abstract/lofty thoughts. We have rigorous state testing each spring that are written and implemented by a multi-national corporation that uses multi-syllabic words that my students do not understand. My question is why can’t these tests questions, like the ones you used in your example, use everyday regular English?

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33 Yelena January 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Cori, maybe I haven’t understood your concern… But it seems to me that children need to be taught these “big and lofty” words. And it must happen for several reasons. One is if children are not taught these words, then they won’t be able to understand our leaders when they speak on these issues. To pick up your reference to math. My child participates in a parents-led math circle with other 4-6 year olds. The kids have no problem with big abstract words such as “line of symmetry”, “gradient”, “reflection”, “rotation”, “segment of a straight line”, “circumference”, etc as long as parents a) introduce a word, b) use it in the games during our meetings, c) encourage children to use these words.

Using big words like this teaches children precision (draw a simple shape, ask a child to a) draw a shape that is “same as” the original one and b) symmetrical to the original one – you will get two different results; using the proper term removes ambiguity). Also, using big and abstract words makes kids feel more capable and more confident. They can express themselves and their ideas more clearly. And they are more eager to participate in serious discussions when they don’t have to struggle to understand and be understood.

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34 Cori January 7, 2013 at 11:13 am

Hi- no the big and lofty things are the concepts in government and economics- how the president appoints cabinet members and then Congress approves them. Or how the Federal Reserve Bank can slow or speed the economy using the money supply and interest rates. Then when they get to the year end test, the students see words that most adults don’t use much less middle school students. I find it frustrating when I know the students know the information but are tested using “rigorous” wording that confuses the students. *sigh*

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35 Yelena January 7, 2013 at 11:44 am

But what’s wrong with learning proper words? I mean, most of us normally don’t go around using the words such as “quadrilateral” or “proprietary” or “antebellum”. However, if we don’t know these words or the concepts they describe, how can we claim to be well-educated? Or should we, just because those are not everyday words most adults use, completely replace them with “a shape with four sides”, “relating to an owner” and “existing before a particular war”. Well, that’s ok, I s’pose, except each of the “big words” embodies a concept that is far deeper than the alternative “simpler” description. There are cases when big words are used inappropriately (i.e. legalese), but if the words are used correctly in appropriate context, in a scholarly way, then not teaching them to children might result in impoverishing children’s English and limiting their opportunity to express themselves succinctly and eloquently.

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36 Angela January 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I guess my thought on this is that it’s one thing to expose children to complex vocabulary and concepts. It’s another thing to make those things the foundation of the curriculum so that students are tested on and held accountable for mastering them. Maybe some of the kindergartners in your group can use the term gradient with their parents during the math circle, but they shouldn’t be subjected to a multiple choice test on the term or be required to have demonstrated mastery of it before moving on to first grade. Whatever is in the Common Core *must* be mastered by all students, so I think we need to think carefully about what’s included.

37 Yelena January 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Angela, all the pre-k and K-age kids in our group can use these words. It’s not because they are so exceptional. It’s because we keep using these words ourselves. Then again, this is not a school group. So we have a much better control over the what, where and how of introducing concepts to the kids. Testing children so early is a failing strategy, as I think we all agree. It does more harm than good. Even in later grades, testing the way it’s done, is terribly counterproductive and harms the learning process. When I went to school, we didn’t have standardized testing (it wasn’t in the US). It was a very different system, based on essays, oral exams, and complex multi-step problems. Then, as I was finishing school, the ed system tried to copy the American model of multiple choice, etc. That was a big mistake, according to the university professors who commented on how high school grads now know and understand much less. I, as a student, enjoyed the change though because it made test prep a LOT less difficult. The new format wasn’t about comprehension, but about memorization (I do have a very good memory). It seems the entire system of standardized testing is just wrong.

38 elf January 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

As a parent I appreciate your comments. In our districts current spiral math curriculum , students don’t stay on any topic long enough to master them. Overbrook sent home a note to tell parents not to help with math homework because they were doing it the wrong way. That process is not transparent enough for parents with good math skills to help is ridiculous.

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39 Cori January 7, 2013 at 11:14 am

Elf- was the note sent home by the teacher/ building admin or the county/district? That’s worrisome. :-(

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40 Yelena January 7, 2013 at 11:53 am

This is interesting that a school asks parents “not to help with math homework because parents do it the wrong way”. There is usually more than one way to solve any given math problem. How do you calculate a tip on your restaurant bill? I asked 3 people and I got three different algorithms, each resulting in the same correct answer. It’s actually good to show more than one way to do something because it leads to good questions such as “how come all these solutions work?”, “what’s in common in all those solutions”, “which one is more efficient”, etc. The problem is that parents are oftentimes too eager to give a complete solution to a child (“here, add 3 here, then carry 1 over here, then divide, then…” – you get the picture). So kids are not given an opportunity to really think about a problem and invent their own ways of solving it. Instead, they learn to be helpless “I don’t know how to do this. Mom, please help!” But the same can be said for schools.

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41 Angela January 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Agreed, Cori and Yelana. This is a sad situation that Elf describes. I know that sometimes parents use different strategies than the school and that confuses their children, but there’s a huge emphasis in the Common Core on using multiple problem solving strategies. I think it’s great if parents show their kids different ways of arriving at the same answer.

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42 Deb January 8, 2013 at 9:25 pm

I don’t like our math series because it has no time for reteaching. I have to do a lesson a day and the administrator wants to know what lesson we’re on every two weeks. Besides that, 3rd graders are learning some things that have, traditionally, been 6th and 7th grade material. I have been tutoring kids before school to help them out.

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43 Deb January 8, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Wonderful article, Angela! Thank you for saying what so many of us want to say. The CC is not improving education, in my opinion. It is just layering more requirements on students and teachers. I feel weighted down with everything that is coming down from our Iowa state education department. Almost every school is on the reading watch list because the assessments are way above some children’s understanding and because the state’s idea of a “baseline” score.

There are so many factors today, too, that affect learning in the classrooms. It bothers me that everyone blames the teachers. We want to help students, we want them to grow, we want them to learn, but we’re cramming things at kids in a fast-paced way.

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44 Wendie Berry January 9, 2013 at 10:19 am

This was a very interesting blog and comment section. When teachers get together there are always plenty of ideas flowing. I would like to make some comments from a private school background. I taught 3rd grade at a private school for 8 years. When I first started, I was astounded by the curriculum requirements, especially the math curriculum. I didn’t see anyway that my students could learn all these things. I hadn’t taught anything nearly as complicated in my 3rd grade student teaching assignment. But the students totally surprised me. Because we had a stepped system that began in K, students built upon their skills and were highly successful. Public school teachers asked us how we did it.
Here, I think, is the main reason. We, unlike the public schools, were not bound by testing. We do test every even year class to show progress. But the main emphasis is not on the testing. Teachers don’t worry all that much how the students do on the tests. Our students consistantly do well. It seems to me that all the teachers in the public schools worry about is the tests. That doesn’t give them much time to teach their students. Learning is so much more than tests. I really wish we would not place so much emphasis on tests.
The other thing I would like to say is that it is important for students to learn basic math facts. There seems to be a movement away from this. Students who know their facts, are usually less frustrated with higher order problems. Math takes less time for them to finish.
Maybe our main problem as a country is that we have placed too much power over education in the hands of the federal government. Cookie cutter doesn’t work for teaching. We need to put more decision making in the hands of the people actively working with the students.

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45 Claire January 19, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I think the common core curriculum has a lot of valuable ideas but our students need gradual exposure. The problems you pointed out were used by our district in 4th grade before the common core was implemented. They were ready due to the type of math program we use from K and on.

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46 Kim May 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm

I can’t help but notice something else on Ralphie’s teacher’s chalkboard: music. I find the most appalling reality that intense focus on CCSS and testing brings is the inability on the teacher’s part to spend time helping students to learn and to connect and build references to other academic areas that are just as important reading and math to the education of a whole child. You are right the CCSS is rigorous and HARD. My frustration is to balance the need for rigor with the need to educate the whole child. Why does learning have to be HARD… so hard that two academic areas consume the entirety of learning time? Why can it not be joyful and unfold in a natural unforced way? I’ve never met a kid who didn’t want to learn. As a music teacher (K-6)and classroom teacher (grades 1-3) of 28 years I perceive a loss of focus on the child and what it means to be a child, resulting in somewhat of a loss of wonder and curiosity on the part of the child and stifling to creative teaching. I feel I have been forced to focus on only the CCSS and what is on the test. I feel it has narrowed our curriculum not enriched it. I feel the scrutiny of the testing, the high stakes nature of the testing, for example tying it into teacher evaluation and labeling schools succeeding or failing, has caused the focus of instruction to narrow to only literacy and numeracy and has squeezed out a great deal of other legitimate academic areas crucial to the development of the whole child. It often even encourages the focus to be on what children can’t do as opposed to what the children can do. So to kind of pull this jumble of thoughts together: I feel although the CCSS and testing are a great GUIDE and help to set high standards , the focus should be the education of a child. I teach children not the CCSS. I’d like to remember that means not excluding joyful learning and not to exclude what is NOT on the test and the CCSS to the detriment of the child.

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47 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 8:49 am

Great observation about the music on Raphlie’s chalkboard! I also love your statement “I teach children not the CCSS.” Thanks for sharing.

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48 Glenda October 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm

How am I just now seeing this fantastic article? Angela, once again you have nailed it! My district has been easing into CCSS and it is now up to my grade – 2 nd. My wee ones are very bright, but come on, expecting seven and eight year olds to do some of the things I am teaching makes me crazy. Have any of the suits who make these standards ever heard of Piaget? Have children changed developmentally? Isn’t concrete learning still needed before we move on to abstract? Grrrr. Sadly, I do not see a move away from this since you write the article back in January. The only thing I see that has changed is my state’s governor has said we will not use PARCC to assess. Florida will make up their own test. Oh brother! Who knows what our kids are in for?

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49 Angie October 15, 2013 at 10:17 pm

I’m so glad I found this posting, I have a first grader in a Southern California school district which just adopted the Common Core math program this year (maybe last year?) and I am so very frustrated with the “teachings” in it. There are similar math problems in the first grade book that you printed above. My son can read some of the words, not all, but he is definitely not comprehending the directions without a detailed explanation from me (one that takes me a bit how to figure out how to explain). The pictures, the “blocks”, “draw the number sentence”, addends, algebra…it’s all a little too confusing and, I hate to admit, advanced for 6 year old minds. When they have the basics down, sure, introduce more complex and difficult problem solving, but kids need basics first.

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