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The New, New Math: A Parent’s Guide

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Kindergarten counting bears

There are big changes underway in how kids across the country are learning math. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia have adopted a common set of standards that detail what students should understand and be able to do at each grade level, from Kindergarten through the end of high school. Known as the Common Core State Standards, they apply to both math and English and by most accounts, they are rigorous–not vague, watered-down generalizations wrestled onto paper simply to achieve consensus. One study found that the new core standards were stronger than the English standards in 37 states and the math standards in 39 states. “We did not average all the state standards. We produced something that was a step beyond,” says mathematician William McCallum, founder of the Institute for Mathematics and Education at the University of Arizona and lead author of the math portion of the common core. Many feel the standards are an important milestone in helping America close its achievement gap with other countries in math and science education; states that signed on to the common core won points in the competition for a share of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” dollars.  “The common core gives us the best chance we’ve ever had to really improve our student performance,” says William Schmidt, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University and an expert on math education policy and teacher preparation. “If we blow this, given Americans’ propensity to throw everything out if something doesn’t work, it could be a real doom-sealer.”

Schools in the states that have adopted the standards have until 2014 to implement them, and most are grappling with them now.  Overall, the standards aim to de-clutter curricula and allow teachers more time to focus on individual subjects, like fractions or multiplication, and to explore them in greater depth. They also emphasize the progression of ideas from grade to grade, so that teachers and students have a better understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing, though some have found that the standards for the high school grades are more disjointed. Having a majority of states teach the same basic skills in every grade could also improve the way teachers are trained. “If you have everyone reading from the same playbook you can imagine that the way we prepare teachers could be much more focused on what they’re teaching,” says McCallum. “A generic ability to teach math could be replaced by: this is what you’re going to be teaching. You can’t do that in a country with 50 different standards.”

The teachers and administrators I interviewed in various parts of the country were generally supportive of the common core. “There is much more of a focus on problem-solving,” says Dianne Smith, principal of Russell Elementary School in Broomall, Penn. who has been working with her district’s math supervisor to implement the standards.  “We are allowing more collaboration in math, students working together, bouncing ideas off each other: ‘This is how I did this problem’; It’s not so much like there is only one right way.”  Many were concerned, however, about having to implement them during a budget crunch. Some mentioned they were using textbooks that were more than a decade old and weren’t sure they’d have funds to purchase new ones in time – though Schmidt and colleagues are working on a digital resources that would help teachers rip-up older textbooks “electronically” so that they better aligned with the standards. Even so, it’s far from clear how many districts and schools will actually be able to adapt classroom instruction to reflect the new standards.

Here’s where parents come in. Read the standards for your children’s grade levels, find out how they will change instruction at your school and where your  principal and your district are in the implementation process. Far from dreary reading, this document is an excellent tool for parents, especially at the K through 8 level: it provides simple and straightforward benchmarks against which to measure your child’s progress. In Kindergarten, for example, children should be able to “count to 100 by ones and by tens,” “fluently add and subtract within 5,” and “compose simple shapes to form larger shapes. For example, ‘Can you join these two triangles with full sides touching to make a rectangle?’” among many other skills.  Examples of the 5th grade standards include: “Fluently multiply multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm,” “Use equivalent fractions as a strategy to add and subtract fractions,” “Graph points on a coordinate plane to solve real-world and mathematical problems.”

Here are some additional resources:

To find out if your state has adopted the standards and to read the full version of them for each grade level, go to:

For a more reader-friendly version of the common core standards, see the guides put out by the National PTA:

Find out how strong your state’s standards are (or were) as compared with the common core. (Massachusetts and California are among the states with the most rigorous standards, and their decision to adopt the common core standards met with local controversy):

Bill McCallum’s, still under development, will provide examples of specific math problems for many of the standards

Helpful news articles about the common core:

PHOTO CREDIT: shawncampbell via flickr

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. joemac53 6:51 pm 09/8/2011

    I am a recently retired high school math/science teacher with 35 years in the books. My state adopted the Common Core standards. I believe we sold out to the Feds for short money and a system that would not improve education in our state. Math and Science were always a strong point for our schools, and now we will just be like everyone else. I hate the centralization of power as far as curriculum is concerned.
    My high school could get kids into strong colleges because of the strength of our program. The emphasis will now be to satisfy the federal masters.

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  2. 2. Anna Kuchment in reply to Anna Kuchment 10:37 pm 09/8/2011

    Dear Joemac53: Thank you so much for your comment. I am guessing that you taught in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania or another of the states that had standards at least as strong as those of the Common Core. I understand your frustration. While the federal government has supported the Common Core effort with some funding, all the curricula will be written by individual school districts or curriculum developers, and the assessments by groups of states. The federal government, to the best of my knowledge, had no direct control or involvement in the actual writing of the standards, nor will they have control over the content of curricula or tests. Please check in again soon and keep sharing your perspective; I’ll be following the core standards story closely.

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