The internet is full of examples of ridiculous common core math problems. These are the things that are driving parents and some teachers crazy. CCSS proponents say these are not common core, they are just examples of bad curriculm.  I couldn’t agree more. They give this snappy response to defend that common core is not the problem, the curriculum is.  I couldn’t agree less.

Consider the proponents mantra from the beginning about what the common core are. They are a set of “fewer and clearer” standards that tell schools/parents what every child should know by grade level. If they are “clearer” then why have so many publishers come out with these crazy lesson plans?

Let’s look at the math standards that have led to the horrible math lessons circulating the internet.

Common Core math standards for second grade:

1) A requirement that students understand place value, for instance, that “100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens — called a ‘hundred.’”
2) That students be able to “add and subtract within 1000, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value … and relate the strategy to a written method.” Also that they “understand that in adding or subtracting three-digit numbers, one adds or subtracts hundreds and hundreds, tens and tens, ones and ones; and sometimes it is necessary to compose or decompose tens or hundreds.”
3) That they can “explain why addition and subtraction strategies work, using place value and the properties of operations.”
4) And that they can “represent whole numbers as lengths from 0 on a number line diagram with equally spaced points corresponding to the numbers 0, 1, 2, …, and represent whole-number sums and differences within 100 on a number line diagram.”

If CCSS had actually done what they said and provided “fewer” standards, we might not be in this conundrum. The above standards could be written more simply as “Students should understand place value, for instance, that 100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens — called a ‘hundred.’  They should be able to add and subtract within 1000. Students should be able to understand numbers with both positive a negative values.”
Instead, by giving so many specific ways of doing things they have actually managed to make the standards more confusing. Why did they call out using models? What did they mean by “explain?” Jason Zimba, co-author of the standards, told the Hechinger Report that “curriculum authors are going to interpret the standards in different ways.” They increase the chance of confusion by trying to cover multiple standards at the same time. Many children have become confused, combining different methods for solving a simple math problem guaranteeing them a wrong answer. The curriculum suppliers have added their own interpretation of “explain” and ended up asking for mini essays on a basic answer to 7+4=11. While this may not have been the intent of the CCSS authors, it is actually a logical outcome of what they have produced.

Herein lies the inherent problem with the standards. By trying to be clearer, they open the door to even more wild and confusing curricula choices.

Consider the laws that we have. When drafting legislative language, legislators try to be as clear as possible. They try to consider every possibility of how people might misinterpret the intent or look for ways around the law and write those definitions and prohibitions into the law.  This gives us the look of some legislation today, especially federal legislation; lengthy tomes full of legalese, convoluted sentences and references to previous attempts to be clear.  Most people glaze over after reading a few sentences. They never get to page 1327.  In contrast, the Northwest Land Ordinance of 1785, which laid out the plan for the entire westward expansion of the United States was only two pages long. The authors trusted people to figure out the minutia on their own.
The way in which the standards are written implies that teachers don’t know how to do these things and must be given more details to help them do their job. Any decent teacher knows the value of having a child explain their work so that the teacher can identify the missing concept if a child gets the answer wrong. CCSS assumes the teacher doesn’t know to do this. The standards are trying to make up for perceived teacher deficits and are in fact telling teachers how to teach and thus limiting teacher creativity. While there may be teachers who need this instruction, there are many who do not and they are feeling the constraints of CC.
More importantly, by using the level of detail in the standards, publishers who are trying to break down the standards even further in to lesson plans are putting their own twist on the standards and coming up with the really bad math lessons we are seeing. It is the nature of written communication. We spend hours analyzing the written word in our Language Arts classes. It is not unreasonable to have a room of twenty five students come up with different interpretations, themes, tones etc from a single text. We have, in fact, encouraged them to do so and it would appear that students who excelled in those classes are now writing math lessons.
What CCSSI has done is given the impression that their standards are so clear that anyone can write a lesson plan aligned to them and thus they opened the door to really bad curricula writers who can claim their product is aligned to Common Core.  Publishers know this claim alone will get school districts to at least look at their products. And if the price is right, because the time is short, they can make a quick buck.
They have created the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for textbooks, providing  any snake oil salesman who wants to claim their product is a good to have the veneer of legitimacy. Are many of the examples of math lessons out there labeled as common core aligned terrible? Absolutely. Are those lessons actually consistent with the intent of the standards? Probably not. Is it just chance that there are so many bad lesson plans? Nope.

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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