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Helping Parents Understand the Common Core Math Standards

In December, U.S. News & World Report published a story entitled “What High School Parents Should Know About Common Core.”  Their four main points about both the Math and English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were that parents needed to know: (1) they are consistent, (2) they define ‘what’ is taught, but not ‘how’ it should be taught, (3) they take content deeper, and (4) they are rigorous.  These are very general aspects, and I think there’s far more that parents need to know about the specific classroom implications of the Common Core and how they can best support their children’s math learning.

Having been a high school math teacher and K-12 math curriculum director, I’ve given dozens of presentations to parents at all levels (mostly elementary) in the past several years.  Their questions were rarely, if ever, about consistency, depth, and rigor.  Those aspects of curricula were assumed to be present, and it’s unlikely many parents are wondering, “are the new CCSS consistent?”

Sorting out the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of math curricula
I’ve found that parents’ questions and concerns tend to be focused almost entirely on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of mathematics and instruction.  So I’ve always framed my presentations by being very clear up front about the ends and means of math curricula.  The goals determine the instructional practices, and we ‘plan backwards’ from our desired outcomes.  For example, if we don’t want students to rely on a calculator, then our classroom instruction and homework assignments must (1) emphasize multiple computational strategies and mental math abilities and (2) teach that pencil-paper algorithms are one tool to use out of many.  If a student immediately grabs a pencil or calculator to solve 3,002 – 2,998, then that student hasn’t developed strong number sense.  Parents understand and agree with this point.

Common Core Practice Standards inform the ‘how’
Given the defined outcomes of the CCSS, they do have strong implications for ‘what’ AND ‘how’ kids should be learning in K-12 math classes.  The ‘what’ in the CCSS is pretty straightforward (add, subtract, calculate perimeter, etc.).  But parents need to know where the ‘how’ fits in.  The Common Core Standards have eight Mathematical Practices that apply to all grades K-12.  Because these Practice Standards apply to every grade level, they are critically important to a child’s success in math and should be well-understood by parents.  The have implications for ‘how’ students need to engage in learning mathematics.

As an example, two of these eight Practice Standards require students to “look for” mathematical relationships in terms of structures and repeated reasoning.  In order to meet these Common Core Practice Standards, students must have frequent and consistent opportunities to look for connections and relationships on their own.  Parents should therefore expect every math class their child has in elementary, middle, and high school to devote a significant amount of time and energy to open-ended inquiry and complex problem solving so that students can develop these critical thinking skills.

Support your child’s independence in mathematics
Many parents experienced math class as a place where relationships and connections were explained at the start of every lesson.  They were rarely given any math problems without first being shown how to do similar math problems.  Most parents I’ve talked to remember that problems 1-30 (evens only!) were pretty easy, but problems 32 and 34 – the word problems – were extremely difficult because they didn’t have a formula or recipe to follow and mimic.

Because of their own classroom experiences, parents helping their children at home are usually inclined to help them by saying, “Let me show you how this works” (and maybe even taking control of the pencil).  While it seems relatively harmless to show a child something that could help her learn a Common Core Content Standard about place value or perimeter, parents need to realize that higher achievement in math requires children to learn and exhibit the Practice Standards independently.  I’ve written about why I haven’t helped my own son with math at certain times, and you can read about it here

The goal is to think like a mathematician: flexible, strategic, and precise
Success in mathematics requires an ability to seek out and figure out patterns rather than simply remember hundreds of procedures – in other words, to think like a mathematician.  All parents need to support and encourage their children as they “’look for” mathematical relationships so that they don’t inadvertently prevent their children from meeting these new Common Core Practice Standards.