Thursday, January 7, 2016

Core: Back Off, Parents

The Hechinger Report ran a piece with the somewhat confrontational title, "Back off parents: It’s not your job to teach Common Core math when helping with homework."

In the piece, Kathlenn Lucadamo argues that parents just need to get out of the business of trying to teach math at home. Her subheading is "What should parents do when they don't understand their kids' Common Core homework?" Her answers? Don't try to be a math guru, talk to the teacher, and teach what you know without stepping on toes.

Some of this advice comes courtesy of Jason Zimba, architect of the Common Core math.

“The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum,” said Zimba.

And we're not just talking about calculus.

The struggle seems to bubble in third grade, said experts, when the math becomes more sophisticated. “It’s when it looks more different. It’s not just counting beans,” said Bibb Hubbard, founder of Learning Heroes, a group for parents.


On the one hand, I'm sympathetic with Common Core math instructors, who have been blamed for everything from global warming to the terrible... well, everything in The Phantom Menace. There are "look at this awful math assignments" memes blaming the Common Core for assignments designed by John Dewey's grandma.

On the other hand, if your brilliant idea about how to teach math is incomprehensible to grown-ups, you may be barking up the wrong tree. And if your response to children' parents when they want to be active and involved is, "back off!" you perhaps don't understand your job.

[UPDATE: Check below in the comments, where Zimba has stopped by to clarify his quote. ]


  1. As a high school math teacher , I notice that the elementary math creators did not correspond with the high school math creators. We now have to teach synthetic division for the Alg 2 Regents exam...which requires an understanding of traditional long division. However traditional long division is no longer taught in Common Core now I have to teach 16 year old's how to do 3rd grade long division before I can teach what I need to? if I have time to spend time on yet another thing.
    Kids are more confused than ever.

  2. Exactly what I've experienced with my three children in 4 years of CC spanning 10 grades. People like to call me crazy and point me to "research" to prove I'm wrong. But I'm not wrong. I love it at my dining room table every night.

  3. Their two words: "back off".
    My two words about MY- get that? MY children? "opt out"

  4. One problem is schools have not traditionally taught mathematics, rather computation. Because parents were, by in large, never exposed to mathematics, they typically have a hard time teaching their children anything other than calculation.

    Here is one teacher's response to the famous new math check:

    It is short and worth reading.

  5. The reality is that our 4th grade math is not teaching computation, at all. Skills that should be quick are slow. This will become a huge problem when my fourth grader hits high school Algebra II (where my 9th grader is) and cannot divide and multiply quickly, because he is too busy drawing stupid boxes for two digit by two digit multiplication. My husband, an engineer, was told that he did not "understand" math despite using it every day. We will continue to teach our child computation skills.

  6. A: you missed the point. It is not acceptable to tell parents to "back off" from their own kids.
    B: I read your link. Of course parents can figure out common core math. Because we already know our math facts. The point is, no matter what method anyone wants to use to teach math- math facts are needed first. This excerpt from your own provided link proves that:

    "figure out what 12 x 10 is — which should be easy — ....."

    Why should "that be easy" if you haven't learned 12x10?

    "...and then just add another 12 onto that to get the answer of 132."

    There we go again with the "just add another 12 on" to a kid who hasn't memorized addition facts.

    This very same method that disses memorizing multiplication and addition facts and other basic skills, then CALLS ON KIDS TO USE THEM.

    And always with this casual attitude-- come on kid! Just add the number! Come on kid! Just multiply 8x4!

    And so - while a grown up stares on impatiently, the child must draw out his little common core circles and sticks and lines... Oh he knows by now that 8 piles of 4 is WHY 8x4 is... Whatever it is. But to get to whatever it is, he must draw the piles. Four of them with 8 marks each, then count them.
    And by the time a 7 year old is done counting... Often he's completely forgotten what in the world he was counting for.

    The comment above recognizes that the failure to teach the very facts that common core CALLS UPON KIDS TO USE happens within a single math problem, across a year of schooling, and across entire grade spans.

    By high school kids in advanced math are called on to use long division. Which wasn't deemed needed in the lower grades..

    No matter what merits there are to learning that math is a puzzle that can be solved many ways, (there are many merits!) it is a failure to not first give access to the basic skills that inform every single one of those many ways.

  7. My city switched to Everyday Math & Connected Math 15 Years ago and our scores have dropped steadily since.

  8. Perhaps if your brilliant idea about how to teach math is incomprehensible to grown-ups it should have been beta tested before being forced on 50 million schoolchildren.

  9. Sue and Frustrated,

    The problem is that parents were never taught mathematics, so if students are actually taught mathematics, it will by definition look very different from what the parents learned in school.

    Perhaps folks would be willing to read a longer criticism of how mathematics is typically taught: Lockhart's Lament ( Link: ). Written in 2002 by a Ph.D. mathematician who left his faculty position at Brown University to teach K-12 students, it reflects the views that a substantial number of professional mathematicians have about the traditional way mathematics is taught. Of course, like any author who takes a strong position, there are those that disagree. Search them out as well.

    The essay is a bit lengthy. To tempt you to read it, I will reproduce the description of mathematics that Lockhart begins with in the essay. Quoting G. H. Hardy, Lockhart states that

    "A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas."

    How well does this description of mathematics correspond to what is taught as mathematics?

  10. The quote that was attributed to me in the Hechinger article (and reproduced above) was a condensed version of a longer statement that I made during the interview for the article:

    " a curriculum that I wrote, parents—the demand on parents to do math instruction would be very low. It would—the problems would look very familiar. The problems in fact would be the same kind of problems you learned when you were a kid, because those are still required and kids still have to be good at it and there’s a need for practice in it. So in a curriculum that I wrote, the complexion of the homework would be different.”

    As I believe this fuller quotation makes clear, I intended this as advice for curriculum writers and for teachers assigning homework. Unfortunately, in the Hechinger article I think it came across more as advice to parents. I might add that the reporter did ask me straight out whether parents should help, and the first word out of my mouth was "Sure." This exchange did not appear in the article.

    If anyone really wants to know what I think about this, the best way to find out is to read my own words here:

    All the best,