Dr. Andrew Chen of Edutron services gave a presentation last night to Rockwood district parents about the common core math standards. Parents came hoping to better understand why their normally “math happy” kids were suddenly becoming “disengaged” with math. Many asked for suggestions for things they could do to help their kids. These were active, involved parents who weren’t afraid to put in the time with their kids. I don’t think they walked away with any real strategies, nor did Rockwood staff offer any significant insight.

Dr. Chen opened his talk with the usual chicken little “America is falling behind” statistics that pro common core reformers like to use to create the crisis that common core will solve. He pointed to 2006 PISA scores which actually tell us very little. Fordham Institute (which is pro common core) said this about the PISA,

The PISA mathematics framework and explanations do not cover the appropriate grade-level material and the released items indicate that the exam is quite weak in mathematical content. Further, PISA developers give only a vague description of what they mean by “mathematical literacy.” This is a problem-solving test and, although mathematics is used, that seems almost incidental. Many problems have no apparent mathematical content….results from PISA ought not to be used to interpret how successful a school system is at imparting grade-level mathematical knowledge and understanding, nor are the PISA framework and released items a suitable model for U.S. standards setters at any level. (p. 2) [emphasis added]

If the test should not be used to set standards, then using the test to justify the establishment of new standards is inappropriate.

Dr. Chen also quickly glossed over a slide on the World Economic Forum which ranks countries based on economic measures. This was supposed to support the idea that America was behind. He conveniently left out that America remains in the top 5 countries according to the WEF, and when we have dropped in rank, the top four reasons never mention education. They are:

(1)weak corporate auditing and reporting standards,
(2) suspect corporate ethics,
(3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street’s financial implosion) and
(4) unsustainable levels of debt

I am not defending Missouri’s math standards. They were not great, but Dr. Chen never pointed to the reason why they weren’t. The reason we had poor standards has not really gone away and is still influencing how common core math is being implemented, which curriculums are being chosen, and how the standards are being taught. The problem is DESE personnel and poor leadership. It is a shame that it took outside influence to change the math standards in Missouri, and unfortunately their implementation is being left to the people who couldn’t come up with better standards on their own.

Dr. Chen wants to change the American illusion of “I’m no good in math,” which is the way the majority of American’s feel about their math skills.  Common core is supposedly going to do that. By solving problems multiple different ways (algorithm, graph, table) children will have a greater understanding of what the problem and solution really mean. I am not opposed to this, but the timing of when you introduce the various methods is critical and I don’t think we are getting it right with common core.

The concept of a tri-legged stool was given to show the pillars of mathematical understanding. It included: computational fluency, conceptual understanding and problem solving. All great concepts but what the parents in the room were indicating is that teaching them all simultaneously was confusing the kids. I think it is also confusing the teachers. Rockwood staff said the ultimate goal was fluency with algorithms, but I don’t think that message has gotten to the teachers.

Dr. Chen went on to walk the room full of parents through the eight overarching goals of the CC math standards which are found in the introduction to the standards. While generally admirable goals, problems arise when implementing them at the wrong point in the education cycle. For instance, having very young children do problems that require abstract thinking (goal#3) is not a reasonable goal.

Much of the presentation focused on having kids persevere through challenging math. “Eventually they will get it.” What was missing from this analysis was that “eventually,” in the early grades, means when their brains are ready, not when you have drilled and they have agonized over a problem long enough. I am not opposed to challenging kids and having them try to work things out on their own. Socrates had some things right. But deciding how much help to give a child is a real skill that not all teachers have. The curriculum used with common core can easily cause teachers to let students flounder too long on their own.  Teaching these alternative methods for math problem solving, which most parents are not well versed in, means kids will have little support from home. With very few wins under their belts and no help coming from mom or dad, children will give up. Those in the room were examples of them problem with this approach and the frustration common core is causing at home.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to, or maybe no one told him about the caliber of Rockwood parents, but much of Dr. Chen’s advice was demeaning to the room full of actively involved parents. He suggested that we be “stingy” with our help on the one hand. Don’t give your kids the answers if they are struggling with homework. I doubt there was a parent there who thought that way.  On the other hand, he also suggested we find mathematical problems to make our kids aware of in every day life. “Which is the better deal in the grocery store, the store sale or the brand with my coupon?” Again, this was a no brainer for the involved parents present. When it came to specific questions parents had like, “How can I re-engage my normally math happy child with math? The change in the curriculum this year is making him so frustrated,” only elicited the vague advice to let him keep struggling until he finds the answer, or maybe spend a little more time on fractions.

He did not acknowledge studies which have demonstrated that direct instruction is more effective for most kids.  He warned that kids who were naturally “good in math” in the early grades, but who couldn’t explain their work, were headed for failure with math in the upper grades. He sited no study that proves this statement either. The standards do nothing to reduce the number of developers of fuzzy math curricula and poorly written worksheets abound that propose to promote “critical thinking.”

Dr. Chen was a fan of Everyday Math (or the Chicago Math Program) which Rockwood has used, to the consternation of parents, for many years. He did not mention the review done by the US Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse which examined 62 studies of Everyday Mathematics. Fifty seven of those studies were not considered for the analysis because they were so poorly deigned. Of the remaining 6 studies, only one showed statistically significant results which led to this conclusion by the expert panel, “Based on this study, the WWC considers the extent of evidence for Everyday Mathematics® on elementary students to be small for math achievement.”

One bright spot in the evening was Dr. Chen’s agreement that lattice math included in EM, while a cute gimmick, provided no long term aid in teaching mathematics and recommended that Rockwood drop it from the curriculum. Rockwood staff tried to minimize its impact, but a parent in the back of the room quickly responded, “That’s all we have done in 4th grade this year.” Let’s hope this is the push the district needed to get rid of this confusing approach.

Because of the way the standards are being implemented, I doubt we will reach Dr. Chen’s goal of changing the American psyche about math to one of being confident in our math abilities. Kids who get little direct instruction, are left to struggle on their own and are hit with multiple different skills to master all at once at not likely to go forward feeling confident that they can do math.

Anne Gassel

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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