Southland parents still scratching their heads on Common Core math

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This is another story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teaching standards are playing out in schools in Southern California.

California’s new Common Core learning standards have some public school parents pulling out their hair, and they're having an especially hard time adapting to the way their children are now taught math.

“The first thing I’m thinking is, 'These people have no idea what they’re doing,'” said Bonnie Wallace, whose fourth and sixth-grade kids are preparing to take the Common Core tests.

As teaching standards for math expand to include concepts like analyzing functions and understanding ratio relations, many parents are left in the dust.

Wallace was one of a dozen parents, also KPCC listeners, who recently shared their Common Core freakout moments with us. For her, the Common Core change was like a bucket of cold water — too much, too soon.

Parent Maryam Zar feels the same. She and her husband give their three kids a lot of help with school work, but they suddenly realized that might come to an end.

“So in our household I’m the wordsmith. I help with English and my husband is the math wiz, and he helps with math,” she said. “And I do remember at one point towards January last year, which was fifth grade, suddenly realizing that I could still tutor the kids but that my husband would be tapped out very soon.”

Zar doesn’t understand why her first-grader is now expected to learn how numbers relate to each other, along with the classic problem-solving where a number is placed over another number and the answer is scribbled below.

“And now with my first-grader it’s a real worry because I really wonder if, later in life, he’ll be able to just add instead of having to sit there and think how a million relates to a billion,” she said.

Just to be clear: Common Core math doesn't throw out computation. However, students need now to explain how they arrive at their answers and understand how numbers relate to each other.

But this observation — thinking about and communicating how math works — is exactly why California’s top education officials are gung ho about the Common Core changes.

“Memorization isn’t good enough anymore. You have to be able to take what you know and apply it,” said California Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who spoke to KPCC last month.

The new standards, he said, will do a better job in teaching skills that students need in the 21st century workplace: critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.

The transition to Common Core has just begun, and it’s going to take years. That’s because changing classroom teaching, Kirst said, takes a lot of time, especially when the change involves the six million students in the California public school system.

Parents we've interviewed and who’ve emailed questions to us worry whether teachers adequately grasp the new learning standards.

“I had dinner with a high school friend from Orange County who has two children and she’s concerned mostly with teacher prep. She’s like, 'I don’t know if the teachers know enough to get information out of students.' So teacher training is very important,” said Laura Wesley, the mother of a fourth and seventh grader.

Kirst said she’s right. He told KPCC fewer than half of the state’s teachers are fully prepared to teach the new Common Core standards, although training is ongoing.

But University of Southern California education researcher Morgan Polikoff said professional development may not be enough to overcome teachers’ low confidence in teaching math.

“That’s unfortunately an issue that we’ve had for a long time in this country, in particular in elementary mathematics. A lot of teachers are not super comfortable with the conceptual understanding of mathematics, and so that is a real issue,” he said.

So where does that leave parents with lots of questions about Common Core math?

“I would say, before freaking out, I would try to do your best to reach out to the school and the teacher in a respectful way ...," Polikoff said. If your child is having problems, be specific, he advises: "'Here are the problems I’m seeing. Here are the ways in which my student isn’t being supported.'”

Here are some resources for parents who want to learn more about math under the new standards:

Common Core State Standards Initiative: Mathematics Standards
The body that helped create the standards summarizes the expectations in math and the thinking behind such concepts as explaining how a problem is solved. Standards for Mathematical Practice outlines what math skills teachers should be developing in students. FAQs and a discussion about the key shifts in teaching math under Common Core are also provided.

Inside Mathematics on Common Core Math Standards
Inside Mathematics, a resource for educators, breaks down the math standards by category (for example, "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them") and provides videos illustrating examples of how the standards are being taught, grade-by-grade.

Khan Academy Common Core Math Practice
The Khan Academy, the online website that provides free virtual instruction, offers practice questions to build student math skills. The questions are divided by grades K-12, and covers counting by 10s to 100 through statistics and probability.

The Key to Unlocking Common Core Standards in Math
One K-5 instructional coach writes for The Teaching Channel about how Common Core standards may often be about teaching perseverance.

Who Was Behind the Common Core Math Standards
A Hechinger Report article on one of the mathematicians who helped write the Common Core standards, and his own frustration as a parent with math instruction.

This story has been updated. A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Eugene Hung as a LAUSD parent in a cutline. He is a parent in the Lowell Joint School District. KPCC regrets the error.