Chicken Little’s Rebuttal

In my last missive (The “Dog Whistles of Math Reform”) I referred to Tom Loveless’ characterization of the Common Core (CC) math standards containing code words embedded within the standards.  Such words serve as cues for reform-minded/ progressivist educators in interpreting what are purported to be pedagogically neutral standards.

One reader, subtly inferring I was a Chicken Little, raised the question that if the CC standards lend themselves to such reform-oriented interpretations, wouldn’t that simply mean that people would continue to focus on the reform-oriented teaching they were inclined to practice? And if so what is changed? Wouldn’t things just stay the same?

The short answer is no, things would not stay–and have not stayed–the same. With CC now being the vehicle of “national standards” (except for those few states that have not adopted them) such interpretations have essentially become law.  The CC standards have not changed the minds of reform minded educators, nor the education schools that promote such philosophies.  The narrative that CC is pedagogically neutral while making sly winks via the embedded “dog whistles” is the same as authorizing all schools to continue to use techniques that cause many of the problems in math–it institutionalizes the problems.

With such prevailing interpretation, schools that might not have done so in the past feel compelled to change instructional practices.  These changes are made in the name of “alignment” with CC. The philosophies and practices promoted by ed schools now have considerable more cachet. Such instruction now carries with it an implicit authorization: CC requires you to teach this way.

In the year before CC went into effect in California, I was working at a middle school where teachers were routinely told by school–and school district–administration that “Next year there will be no more teacher at the front of the room saying ‘Open your books to such and such page, and do these problems’. There would be less reliance on textbooks, and more reliance on group-work, student-centered and inquiry-based approaches. This, we were told, was in keeping with what CC required. [Shameless self promotion: I wrote about this transition year in the book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher“]

The reform ideology permeating CC’s implementation is nowhere more evident than in how the teaching of the standard algorithms are implemented. Many reformers believe that teaching standard algorithms first eclipses students’ understanding of why the procedure works. In the CC standards, the first mention of a standard algorithm is in the fourth grade—for multidigit addition and subtraction. A delay also happens with multiplication (delayed to fifth grade) and long division (delayed until sixth grade).  Prior to that, the standards refer to drawings/strategies based on place value–but not specifically to the standard algorithms.

In line with reform type thinking, there are schools that happily comply with what they think is a mandated delay in the teaching of these algorithms, and teach the alternatives. As a retired teacher of thirty years commented on my last missive regarding the alternatives taught during the delay:

“These new ‘strategies’ simply become new procedures, which small children attempt to learn and memorize because that is what many small children do. Of course these strategies are unworkable, mathematically incoherent and very confusing.”

According to two of the lead writers of the standards, Jason Zimba and Bill McCallum, however, the standard algorithms can be taught earlier than the year in which they appear. Zimba in fact says this in writing, and recommends teaching it in first grade. Specifically, he states

The Common Core requires the standard algorithm; additional algorithms aren’t named, and they aren’t required.”  

But word is not getting out.  Some teachers in the lower grades have been sending notes home to parents telling them not to teach students the standard algorithms at home.

I still maintain a guardedly optimistic outlook however, as summarized in my closing statements in the post I referenced at the beginning of this one. Read it, and send a link to your local school board.


4 thoughts on “Chicken Little’s Rebuttal

  1. Exactly. Notwithstanding that some developers of CC seemed not to have this in mind specifically, the standards have been used as a way to shut up advocates of conventional math — “Look, you’ve got all you want! Aren’t you EVER satisfied??” While still forging ahead with the fuzzy agenda (as witnessed in, like, every CC article ever by a professional educationist since the publication of the standards).


  2. “–it institutionalizes the problems.”


    CCSS institutionalizes low expectation, NO-STEM math. The highest goal at the end of high school is a 75% liklihood of passing a college algebra course (no remediation), and this track officially starts in Kindergarten. Traditional math allowed me to get to calculus in high school without ANY help from my parents. This is now institutionally almost impossible. The issue is not just about HOW math is taught, but about providing proper curriculum tracks. Low expectations and fuzzy math have been going on for 20+ years with reform math (MathLand, TERC, Everyday Math, etc.), but CCSS now institutionalizes low expectations. K-6 is now officially a NO-STEM zone.

    How are students able to make the non-linear transition from a barely algebra end of high school no college remediation slope to a STEM level AP calculus math track in high school? They need to have a proper algebra course in 8th grade. CCSS pushes the idea that 8th grade algebra is not really necessary and that students can make the transition by doubling up on math in high school or taking a summer course. This is ed school fairlyland thought. Their pedagogy is just cover for low expectations and some sort of natural curiosity/engagement process that apparently works by definition. If you aren’t successful, don’t blame them.

    So, how do students do this now? Ask us parents. Really. Ask us. It’s not about showing a love of learning or taking our kids to science museums, or even asking them real world questions in the grocery store. We had to ensure that Everyday Math was more than repeated partial circling or letting our kids choose the lattice method. We had to “Practice math facts at home” all of the time. We had to ensure that basic skills (and understanding) were mastered. We had to push even our math brain kids. Their fundamental flaw is to assume that education is natural. This issue is far more than just how math is taught.

    The fundamental problem is that with full inclusion, K-6 doesn’t push to get kids to learn anything more than the CCSS basics. They know that proficiency in CCSS will never reach their high math track split in 7th grade. They just assume that something like the Everyday Math spiral will get the job done naturally. It does no such thing. Been there, done that. Talked to other STEM-kid parents. Nope. It doesn’t happen. We parents hide the skill tracking at home. CCSS increases the academic gap.

    Many schools seem to understand the problem with differentiated instruction, but the solution often becomes differentiated self-learning when they group equal level kids together in the same classroom and give them only a fraction of the teacher’s time. (Note that I use “level” rather than “ability.”) It’s made worse when the work focuses on enrichment rather than acceleration. Besides, this ends up being a form of hidden academic tracking in class – hidden to parents, not the students. Many educators seem to understand the need for more math tracks in K-6 because of the wider range of abilitites, but they don’t know how to do it properly. They think it can be a natural “trust the spiral” technique, but fail to see that those kids in the higher level groups in class are the ones getting the basic skill help/push at home. They are not necessarily better ability kids! Their lack of understanding of this need for mastery condemns all of the other kids with no help at home to a NO-STEM career path by 7th grade. As I said, I was able to get there without any help from my parents long ago. This is virtually impossible today. This issue is NOT just about teaching pedagogy, but about expectations and what is really needed for students to have a chance at living up to their potential. Reaching this level does not have to be a multi-generational process, but for many, it’s all over by 7th grade. They can’t make the non-linear transition. Educators are just happy if students become the first in their family to get to the community college. Maybe their kids will have a chance at reaching their potential with parents who know enough to push and ensure basic skills and content knowledge at home.


  3. I see no Chicken Little here. My children’s experience echoes what Barry has been saying all these years.

    In a way, I think of my children’s education as Before Common Core and After Common Core. Before Common Core, my children had teachers who would get on their knees and beg parents to do math facts with their children at back-to-school-night. (Unfortunately, even then math facts weren’t covered enough in the classroom.) After Common Core, the teachers just tell parents to work on math strategies with their kids. Before Common Core, my children would have timed math fact tests. After Common Core, nope. Before Common Core, the teacher would provide direct instruction. After Common Core, most of my children’s time in public school was spent in student-centered groups, where the kids would discuss the math problems with each other. My child would come home from these student discussions with the completely wrong idea of how to do basic, fundamental math.

    One of my kids started Common Core about two years before the 7th grade split, so we have had a test of sorts to see how everybody is doing. Some kids got through this type of teaching just fine, and got into advanced math and are doing fine. Other kids used to be strong at math before Common Core but now…. aren’t. It’s interesting, too – I’ll look at those smart kids who didn’t make the split, those kids who used to be “good” at math before Common Core started, and automatically think that the teaching style of the last two years had something to do with their missing the cut-off. Their parents, though? Their parents blame the kids, in a way. The parents just tell the kids that math isn’t their strong subject. Two years ago, it was.

    I’m grateful that I came across Barry’s writing shortly after Common Core started, and I’m grateful that I read the comments on his articles. I would have worked with my kid anyway when she had problems. But reading the comments helped convince me to take her help to the next level – to buy additional curricula that the school wasn’t using and to go through the math (all of it) with her myself (I used Art of Problem Solving’s series). That technique helped keep my child’s fundamentals strong, and I would recommend it highly to all parents who have children learning with reform math in public elementary school.


  4. Pingback: Where is the Evidence, Dept. | traditional math

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