Why parents don't need to fear Common Core math

I encountered a bit of advice this week that my dear mother would have welcomed during her brief and inglorious career as my pre-Algebra tutor: When it comes to assisting kids with their math assignments, parents can afford to do less.

After struggling to help her first grader with some unfamiliar addition and subtraction formats, the Hechinger Report’s Kathleen Lucadamo sought advice from teachers and parents on how to cope with changing curricular materials and methods. The group recommendation was basically to act as the highway patrol rather than a chauffeur—that is, be on the lookout for breakdowns and give directions when necessary, but don’t pick the route and do the driving yourself. In the words of Jason Zimba, a physicist and the lead writer of the Common Core math standards, “The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum.”

This consensus is more than just a remedy for the brain-melting feuds erupting at American kitchen tables over the spiffiest way to factor a polynomial. It also offers a shortcut around one of the least enlightening discourses of modern education politics, which is the squabble over why none of us can decipher math homework that was perfectly straightforward when we were learning it as students. (Well, it was probably straightforward for most. I’m so sorry, Mom.)

There’s been a lengthy Common Core trial adjudicated in state legislatures, cable news segments, and local school board meetings over the last five years, and the murder weapon always seems to be a problem sheet of weird-looking math questions. You run across it in your Facebook feed when someone reposts a viral story about an ostensibly breezy arithmetic exercise turned on its head by the weird circuitousness of Common Core math—or else when your other, slightly more didactic friend posts the solution and remarks on how totally simple it actually is. The stories never stop coming because schools are still working to adopt high-quality materials aligned with the standards, and parents who have been adding zero placeholders and carrying digits their whole lives don’t intuitively grasp the new way their kids are being taught.

That’s probably why Lucamado’s story, and especially the Zimba quotation, have been repeatedly pilloried by Common Core’s most persistent foes. “Parents are too stupid to teach their kids math so they should just stop,” one critic summarized. Another declared Zimba’s remarks a directive to leave children submerged in confusion as they try to do homework.” It’s an open question whether a prominent Common Core architect could ever utter another word without being hit with similar levels of snark, unless it was a remorseful abjuration of the wicked standards and his deviationist efforts to bring them into being.

Since his detractors won’t be fair, it’s worth pointing out that Zimba’s sentiment was totally in line with those of the veteran teachers interviewed for the article. It’s obvious that he doesn’t actually object to parents giving their kids extra math help, because NPR described him doing exactly that in its huge honking profile of him from 2014. And there’s a rather glaring difference between “handling work load” and “[making] sure everything is completed,” as Zimba characterized his homework oversight, and just throwing in the towel and heading for the La-Z Boy. In fact, parents embracing a role as a secondary resource allows teachers to teach and students to learn—with great difficulty at times, but on their own terms. Another of Lucamado’s sources compared her children’s efforts to understand higher-order math concepts to the ordeal of learning how to their shoes: “It’s really painful to see them frustrated and angry. But I’m not going to tie their shoes anymore, because they are eleven.”

Given how opportunistically they’ve been hurling vitriol at the standards, it’s inexplicable that Common Core opponents would don kid gloves to take on the status quo. And yet seldom do we see them training their attacks on our present state of math achievement, which assessment measures like PISA have shown to be desultory at best. Though Common Core-aligned math problems may look wonky at first (it doesn’t help matters that curriculum providers have been slow in developing clearly written materials), their underpinnings cohere closely with the pedagogical approaches used by countries like Singapore, which lap the field in international testing.

The aim of these techniques is to inculcate what experts call “automaticity” in the early grades: a memorization-based facility for recovering critical information like times tables and standard algorithms. But they also emphasize a more penetrating comprehension of why the digits add up (or subtract, or divide) the way they do. It’s this deeper knowledge that will prove helpful when today’s third graders become tomorrow’s freshman engineering majors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it easy to communicate to the uninitiated.

If you ever feel yourself in insufficient awe of teachers’ dedication to their jobs and pupils, check out some of their testimonials on what it took to implement Common Core. Years of training, professional development, curriculum design, and lesson planning are what separate a professional math instructor from a father doling out half-remembered tips and tricks as he prepares dinner for four (probably after working a long day himself). That’s certainly not to say that parents should defer to teachers on all matters academic and sit mutely while their children flounder. But the paths to a solid education are varied and multiple. And no matter what the dead-end Common Core truthers tell you, the slightly peculiar new route isn’t automatically the worst way to get there.

Kevin Mahnken
Kevin Mahnken is an Editorial Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.