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Stop Hating Common Core Math

by Alison Hudson

November 17, 2014

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Donate If you are an international reader, you may not have heard of Common Core, which is purely a "thing" within the U.S. It's a push to standardize learning levels across the country, and also to introduce new approaches to what are often decades-old teaching methods.

If you are a State-side reader, you probably haven't been able to avoid hearing about it, especially if you're active on social networks. Common Core mathematics, in particular, has become a lightning rod for criticism, the new "poster child" for what's wrong with the public school system. Examples of Common Core math (like the one pictured to the right) have gone viral across Facebook and Pinterest, and political pundits have pounced on these examples (and others) to excoriate the Common Core approach. There's no doubt about it: people hate Common Core math.

But they shouldn't.

Don't get me wrong. I get it; I've been there. The first time I really paid attention to the Common Core was when I went to Meet the Teacher night at my children's elementary school in 2012. My daughter was entering first grade that year, and my son was entering fourth grade; both of their teachers that night made sure to mention that the district was adopting Common Core standards. So I went home and looked it up. My knee-jerk reaction was just like yours. "What. The. Hell?!"

But it was just that: my knee-jerk reaction. Instead of stopping there and getting angry, I did something it seems a lot of parents aren't willing to do: I asked the question "Why do teachers think that this is a better way?" And not sarcastically, like "I don't know WHY teachers think that this is a better way!" I asked it sincerely, I spent all of maybe 15 minutes doing some Google searches, and -- amazingly! -- found the answers I was looking for.

Many parents, it seems, won't do that. And even worse, when someone attempts to explain things to them, far too many parents dig their heels in and insist that, no matter what anyone says, Common Core math is irrational, inefficient, and incapable of doing any good for their children. It's a terribly uncritical position to take, but it seems to dominate amongst the general public.

Why do parents hate the Common Core?

I think there are a few major reasons why parents hate the new math so strongly, and why they are so uninterested in changing their position.

1. It makes parents feel stupid

I'm just going to be blunt on this one. When a parent sees fourth grade math and they have no idea what's going on, they feel stupid. This is fourth grade math, after all, and they passed fourth grade! They should know how to do this! Rather than accepting that their lack of understanding is a result of their own personal shortcomings, however, they deflect their inadequacy onto the teacher and on Common Core. "If I can't understand the math, it's because the MATH is stupid, not because I'M stupid!"

2. People dislike change

There's also a traditionalist streak in the arguments against the Common Core. "I learned math the old fashioned way, and I can do long division. The old way was fine! Why change it! Change bad! Raaaarrrr!" In general, people fear change, especially when they don't understand the change (see reason #1), and so they assume that the old way was best. Novel approaches are not comfortable, and when coupled with that feeling of ignorance, rejection is inevitable.

3. Common Core has become highly politicized

For reasons that have nothing to do with the actual educational merits of Common Core, the Common Core movement has become a political talking point. That polarization -- as virtually any topic that gains political traction suffers in the United States -- places many parents into an oppositional position to Common Core even before they sit down to try and help little Sally with her math homework, because they've already been primed for opposition by the pundits they watch, read, and listen to. The very term Common Core has become toxic to some parents, and CC Math is the easiest target for vitriol because it's not only so very different but it's also highly visual, making it easy to share on social networks.

4. Parents have an oppositional relationship with teachers

Many parents simply don't trust teachers in general. Not only has Common Core become politicized, but public education itself has become politicized. Teachers are the public face of public education, hence they are the ones in the cross-hairs. In fact, teachers are frequently targets of public political derision due to things like unionization and school funding.

This oppositional relationship is itself rooted in the anti-intellectualism that is sadly rampant in society. When the public at large has trouble accepting things like evolution, climate change, and the relative threat level of Ebola compared to Influenza, Common Core doesn't really stand a chance in the court of public opinion.

What is the Rational Approach to Common Core Math?

Whether or not Common Core has long-term traction is beside the point. Sally still needs to turn her homework in on Monday, and tacking a snarky parental polemic to her homework isn't going to get her a passing grade. So what can a dedicated parent do?

Accept that you are not a trained teacher. Contrary to what is apparently the popular parental belief, teachers are not random people hired off of the streets to babysit children, nor are they the "those who can't" of a popular (and insulting) old adage. They are college-educated professionals who also have to maintain state certification, which means continuing to take college classes during their career. They study not only specific subject-matter but also things like pedagogy, classroom mangement, and even child psychology. They have, in other words, done a lot of work learning how to educate. Most parents have not.

Acknowledge that these trained professionals might actually know what they're doing. Because teachers are trained, college-educated professionals, the rational position to take is that the teacher, very possibly, has a method behind their madness and that they do, in fact, know something you don't.

Take a few minutes to learn with your child. This third one may be the most radical one for some parents, but I'm going there anyways: it's quite possible that you, yourself, might be able to learn something from this new method of teaching math. I've actually been pleasantly surprised with some of the new, novel approaches to math in the Common Core -- approaches designed not just to encourage rote memorization of things like multiplication tables, but also to teach logic and critical thinking skills.

It sucks having to re-learn math, I know. But maybe while we're helping our kids learn, we'll all become a little better at math ourselves. And let's face it: the world could probably use a little more learning all around.

by Alison Hudson

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