FLORISSANT • The 40 parents sat in child-sized chairs inside the library of Barrington Elementary School and watched intently as a fourth-grade teacher wrote a problem on the smartboard. Then she asked children in the crowd — not the parents — to solve it.
It was 321 minus 147.
Small hands shot up. One boy broke down the numbers by hundreds and tens, and then did the math. Another boy deconstructed the numbers differently. The teacher, Lesli Henderson, wrote their methods as each described them. Then she drew a number line to illustrate how a different child had solved the problem using addition to do the subtraction.
“Some things make sense,” said Rebecca Akers, with her husband and fourth-grade daughter, after watching the new math strategies that involve multiple steps. “But sometimes I’m like, ‘Why don’t you just add 15 and 15?’”
The parents in the room were drawn there by the shift to Common Core, the national English and math benchmarks that have left many parents feeling flustered by elementary school worksheets. The language is different. A subtraction problem that once involved borrowing now takes a list of steps to solve.
Parents in the Hazelwood School District stated overwhelmingly in a survey last year that they needed help understanding their children’s homework. So at “Parent U” workshops this fall, they’re getting a primer in how to better support them.
“You want them to be able to explain their thinking,” Nevels Nevels, Hazelwood’s math curriculum coordinator, told the parents. “Oftentimes, kids will give the right answer for the wrong reason.”
The Common Core standards were adopted by Missouri and 45 other states in 2010. They state what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of every grade level. They’re intended to make students better problem solvers, deeper thinkers and more prepared for college and the workplace.
They don’t dictate curriculum or teaching methods — that’s up to school districts.
In math, children are expected to do more complicated arithmetic at an earlier age. They’re also given the latitude to solve problems in multiple ways. This often means using a variety of methods to visualize the numbers — using fingers, number lines, dots and number tiles. Three children may address the same problem differently.
The approach has confused some parents who learned more straightforward methods for math, such as drills and memorization. Some have resorted to YouTube videos to understand the new process of long division.
“I was taught to memorize. That was it,” said Renee Taylor, who attended a workshop at Keeven Elementary earlier in September. Word problems that her fourth-grade son brings home sometimes stump her. “You need to do more than just 7 times 8,” she said.
‘THEIR OWN MEANING’
Inside a fifth-grade classroom at Brown Elementary School, Pete Kain directed his students’ eyes to the giant poster-sized paper at the front of the room.Written in black marker were measurement estimates: the distance from Earth to the sun, the number of stars in the Milky Way, the mass of the Earth, the amount of pressure inside the Earth’s core. Each number included more than a dozen zeros.“Your job is, with your partner, to figure out a way to rewrite these numbers,” Kain told the 20 fifth-graders. “How do I rewrite this so I don’t have to keep writing these zeros?”
For the rest of the class period, they worked in pairs, trying to tie the previous day’s lesson on exponents to these problems that took that knowledge one step further.
Before Common Core, which Hazelwood began implementing in 2012, Kain would have started the lesson with the solution, he said.
“I used to get up and say, ‘We’re going to work on this today. This is exactly the way you’re going to do it, and this is the way I expect you to do it,’” Kain said. “Now I present problems for them. I let them struggle through it and make their own meaning.”
Some of the controversy surrounding Common Core is based on the curriculum chosen by school districts. It has attracted pointed attacks from some parents that have occasionally gone viral, such as the prank check that a father in Ohio made out to his son’s elementary school, using a facetious dollar amount followed by a series of Xs and Os.
Backlash against new ways of teaching math aren’t new. So-called Math Wars erupted in some parts of the country in the 1990s over new methods. Now, curriculum adopted under Common Core is bringing different techniques into more classrooms.
Critics of Common Core say it turns a simple one-step problem into a complex endeavor with multiple steps. Proponents of the new approach say it helps students better understand concepts and not just procedure.
Justin Jackson and Sincere Mack worked together on the exponents in Kain’s classroom. They both like math, they said.
“It’s my favorite subject at school,” Justin said. But his parents don’t always understand what he’s doing. “Sometimes I have to end up correcting them and show them that I did get the right answer.”
SHOW AND EXPLAIN
Inside the library at Barrington Elementary, some parents took notes on legal pads as Henderson posed math problems to students. Simple addition. Problems involving volume. Subtraction using multiple digits.One by one, the children walked everyone through how they arrived at an answer.“Some of these kids are coming up with some pretty in-depth strategies,” Henderson said.
Down the hall in a different classroom, Nevels, the math curriculum coordinator, did the same with children in early grades. As parents watched, he asked the children questions until they arrived at an answer. And then he asked them to explain their answer.
“In the past, everything was about the answer,” Nevels said. “Unfortunately, in the United States, you can get the right answers in math and not understand it at all.”
Nationally, much of the instruction around Common Core is driven by the assessments. For decades, standardized tests were paper exams with multiple choice questions. They rewarded speed and efficiency, the ability to use a procedure and come up with a solution.
Tests aligned with the Common Core standards are online. They require that students show their work and explain it.
Delicia Pleasants said she came to the workshop because she said math instruction seems much different than she remembers. Her daughter, Damara Clark, is in second grade.
“I just wanted to make sure when I was helping her I was teaching her the right way of doing it,” she said. “Last year, when she was in the first grade, she brought her assignment home and it said, “Ten less and ten more.” I was like, ‘What? What does this mean?’”
It was terminology for addition and subtraction.