COMMON CORE MEETS COMMON SENSE–Math (Part 3 of 3)

CC Math (CCM), the subject of this final post, may be the most hated educational reform since No Child Left Behind. The initiative remains a political hot potato and reminds me a little of the warnings I heard throughout most of my middle and high school years: “The metric system is coming! The metric system is coming!” Math teachers presumably enjoyed using the threat as motivation for students who couldn’t figure out which way to move those sneaky decimals. I think my former middle school teachers, Mrs. Gordon and Mr. Franklin, actually believed the hype. Unfortunately, they were 1.83 meters deep before America finally rendered a verdict and chose to stick with standard measurement. My own mother believed the metric system was a very real part of the Cold War. She also strongly discouraged me from using the algebraic expression of the numeral 7. “That looks like something the Russians would do,” she said. Thankfully, Rocky knocked out Drago and Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Without Rocky and Reagan, we might all be measuring things in units of tens and writing those pinko commie 7s. On the bright side, running a 5K still sounds cooler than it otherwise would if the good old U. S. of A. had taken the metric plunge. Joking aside, we have survived math crises before. I suspect we will survive this one known as CCM. Navigating the rhetoric is the real challenge.

“CC is coming! CC is coming!” has been the battle cry since 2008, although it was much more of a battle whisper back then. The volume has gotten considerably louder recently. The difference between this math “crisis” and the one back in the ’80s is that the metric system remains other countries’ problem—or blessing, depending on your understanding. In contrast, CCM has actually become our problem—or blessing, depending on your position. Without even checking the Old North Church tower, I can tell you that the CC “threat” did not arrive by land; it arrived by C-note, as in the almighty dollar. When the Federal Government awarded Tennessee with half-a-billion dollars ($501 million to be exact) in Race to the Top grant money back in 2010, the understanding was very clear…CC isn’t going anywhere soon. For better or worse, CCM has now become reality in Tennessee, Sumner County, and yes, even Madison Creek.

This final installment documents my evolving thought process regarding CCM. Specific math standards are available here and are sortable by your child’s grade level. The words that follow come with the same disclaimer I offered two weeks ago: My intent is to spark original thought and consideration. To repeat what I said in Part One, I’m not here to sell you a bill of goods, and I’m not willing to sacrifice my professional credibility on the altar of political correctness, either. The Sumner County adopted math curriculum, Bridges Math, will be mentioned as well, simply because I consider it CCM in action and because the program provides families with concrete exposure to CCM. The jury, as far as I am concerned, is still out on both CCM and Bridges. Truthfully, I don’t expect the jury to return with a verdict for quite some time. Know on the front end, however, that I am cautiously optimistic about both CCM (think standards) and Bridges (think curriculum). I hope stakeholders are, too. Neither could be worse than the watered-down math standards and/or the curriculum that preceded them.

My first exposure to CCM occurred at a Tennessee Department of Education training several years ago. I was honestly appalled (seriously, I was appalled) that somebody managed to turn something as simple as 46 x 29 into an exercise in drawing and shading. When we were asked to solve the problem, I simply used the standard algorithm Mrs. Tate taught me back at Lakeview Elementary. I stacked the numbers on top of one another, started multiplying using the “times tables” I had already DOMINATED the year before, dropped a zero, multiplied some more, and arrived at the product with a little simple addition. I was, after all, the undefeated times tables champion in my class…an original mathlete. Billy Langford might disagree, but I would have won the entire grade level had the teachers allowed us to draw brackets and settle matters like men. I digress.

Imagine my surprise when the CC trainer requested that I solve 42 x 29 by drawing some boxes, doing a little shading, and arriving at the correct answer visually. I refused. Imagine her surprise when a grown man, not to mention an educator, simply told her no. I am my mother’s child, after all. Just like Mildred Duncan took her stand against the Big Red 7 back in the ‘80s, I dug in and Just Said No (Nancy reference, not Ronald) to Communist Core Math. People don’t get kicked out of education training, but I’m pretty sure I was close that day. As the trainer walked away frustrated, I mumbled something about being escorted out of better places by nicer people. Not my proudest moment. Apparently nobody had told this lady about my success as an elementary memorization all-star, but I had conveniently forgotten my plight as a high-school math reasoning failure. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t stop to consider the fact that I was literally incapable of solving her math problem visually because I was nothing more than a very successful math memorizer as a child. As a teenager, when math demanded reasoning, my grades suffered. Worse, my learning suffered. I lost the cognitive dissonance battle in CCM training that day, and pride persuaded me to file CCM under the “stupid column” instead of filing my math skills there. Have you ever experienced an “I-don’t-understand-this-so-it-must-be-stupid” moment?

Maybe you remember crushing math in school. Maybe you remember being crushed by math. Or maybe you remember both, like me. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex topic, I think there are three types of math students: those who naturally excel, those who naturally struggle, and those who could go either way, depending on expectations and instruction. Let’s call these kids math studs, duds, and prospects. (Disclaimer…NO student is actually a dud in my book. The labels are offered for illustration purposes only.) Traditional math standards and curricula have failed the duds and the prospects for a long, long time. The reason I am cautiously optimistic about CCM in general, and Bridges in particular, is because it emphasizes reasoning at an early age, the very skill that creates problems for prospects and duds when they encounter advanced math theory. Think of it this way…traditional math instruction has historically failed approximately two-thirds of our math students (duds and prospects). Even worse, prospects like me were fooled into believing we were studs until memorization skills were no longer sufficient. Let me pose a couple of very serious questions:  Is it possible that CCM could turn prospects into math studs? Is it possible that even math duds can experience some level of success with the help of visualization skills promoted by CCM and taught through Bridges as early as kindergarten? I don’t know the answer to those questions…yet. What I do know is that doing the same thing we have always done will get prospects and duds the same rotten math results we have always gotten. The small percentage of students who are math studs have a seemingly innate ability to “get” numbers. You may know them as actuaries, engineers, statisticians, or even bookies. I contend these math minds will understand and excel at quantitative reasoning regardless of the standards or the curriculum. CCM, in other words, poses no risk to these real mathletes. Let’s simplify. Traditional math standards and conventional math instruction have historically enabled only math studs to succeed. CCM and Bridges now conceivably provide an opportunity for the other groups, duds and prospects, to succeed mathematically.

Is all this really that big of a problem? Are math skill deficits as pronounced as I am implying? I suppose the answer is a matter of perspective. Indulge me for a moment as I set aside my principal role for the purposes of speaking from a father’s perspective. For the Duncan family, math is currently a monumental problem with very real financial implications. My oldest, Eli, is in the process of making college decisions and applying for scholarships. He has one big problem. The gap between his ACT Math score (25) and his ACT Reading score (35) is TEN points. Consequently, the gap between his ACT Math score (25) and his ACT Composite score (31) is SIX points. This same Math subscore, because of its effect on the Composite Score, will likely cost him tens of thousands of dollars in merit scholarship money. In my world as principal, I quantify and attack achievement gaps between ethnic minorities and non-minorities, between the economically disadvantaged and the affluent, and between students with and those without learning disabilities. In my world as father, I wish I could attack the much more tangible achievement gap between my son’s ACT Math subscore and his other subscores. I can’t. Eli is not a math stud. He is a math prospect. On April 11, 2015, this kid showed up to take his ACT–a nationally-normed, standardized assessment–with Tennessee math skills. As my father would say, Eli showed up to a gun fight with a knife. My son arrived at a big league game with bush league math skills.

Still cynical? The following scores are real and represent how a math prospect named Eli was conditioned to believe his Tennessee math skills were sufficient. TCAP Math scores: 3rd Grade (514/Advanced), 4th (556/Advanced), 5th (563/Advanced), 6th (782/Proficient), 7th (808/Advanced). Even his high-school math scores were respectable, as measured by Tennessee End-of-Course (EOC) tests: Algebra I EOC (97%), Geometry EOC (96%), and Algebra II (94%). Remember his ACT Math score of 25? That score puts him in only the 79th percentile of math students in the United States. If you think states should be responsible for drafting and implementing their own educational standards, we agree. If you think home-grown Tennessee math standards were adequate, we disagree. Numbers don’t lie. Why am I optimistic about CCM and Bridges? Because it would be virtually impossible for an objective person to conclude that we should have stuck with our old standards and curriculum. Is CCM perfect? Absolutely not. Is it better than what we had? You better believe it. Would it have made a difference for Eli? We will unfortunately never know.

After more than 4,500 words and three different blog posts, allow me to close with some practical application. Parents, I’m talking directly to you. I’m also talking to myself as a father. What follows is a little advice, specifically within the context of Common Core. Like most advice, it applies in a much broader context, as well. One of the greatest disservices we can do our children is to jade them through our words and opinions. I have made the mistake more times than I care to admit. When we badmouth standards and curriculum (not to mention teachers, assignments, and schools), we provide our kids a license to disengage. Quite literally, we give them the permission they need to become apathetic at best and defeated at worst. Student statements during a math lesson are quite often reflective of parental attitudes: (1) “My mom said she was terrible at math, too.” (2) “Dad tried to help me with this math last night, but he just got frustrated.” (3) “Uncle Johnny is an accountant, and he can’t even do this Common Core stuff.” (4) “My parents think Bridges is completely ridiculous.” The list goes on and on. My own kids have heard me say things like, “The only numbers that matter have dollar signs and percentages attached.” Of course, I arrived at that wrong opinion because I am completely proficient at “banking and finance” math. Legitimizing advanced math, however, would require me to acknowledge my mathematical weaknesses. How I wish I could take those words back. Maybe I am responsible for that ACT Math subscore of 25.

Common Core is neither state-sponsored propaganda, nor is it the perfect cure for America’s educational ills. CC is, quite simply, an educational initiative designed to make American students more college and career ready. Period. Because of Tennessee’s historically diluted educational standards and miserable performance on nationally and internationally-normed tests, I am certainly willing to give this new initiative a test drive. Are you? More resources have been provided throughout this series than most parents likely have the time to consider. Nonetheless, even if you haven’t clicked on any other hyperlinks in these three posts, please consider clicking on these last two. Parents’ attitudes toward school work are contagious. So is a parent’s math anxiety. These attitudes and anxieties are most prevalently manifested through CCM. In this fascinating New York Times blogthe author explains exactly how contagious math anxiety can be, even for well-intentioned parents. It’s a quick but convicting read and well worth your time. Finally, if you need a simple and expedient look at exactly how CCM compares with traditional math standards and operations, Why Math Looks Different Now is the best video example I have found and only requires about eight minutes of your time.

I sincerely hope all of these resources have helped. Most importantly, thank you, parents, for playing an active and absolutely critical role in your children’s schooling. Educational efforts are most effective when schools and parents collaborate. MCE is blessed to call you partner, and we look forward to continuing our mutually beneficial relationship for the sake of our students and your children.

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