Some Comments on the Teaching of Common Core “Mathematics” in the Lower Grades

R. James Milgram
|
Posted: Jan 21, 2016 12:01 AM
Some Comments on the Teaching of Common Core “Mathematics”  in the Lower Grades

I don’t often get furious about the idiocies that daily emerge from the Common Core universe, but a recent statement by a lead writer of the Common Core math standards, Jason Zimba, got me there.

As I’ve noted before with Dr. Sandra Stotsky (a fellow member of the Common Core Validation Committee), the developers and promoters of Common Core have perpetrated a gigantic fraud on this country. Now Zimba wants parents to sit back and stop trying to minimize the damage.

In an article published in The Hechinger Report, Zimba addressed nationwide parental frustration at nonsensical math assignments by warning parents to do what he does with his children -- basically shut up and let the teacher follow the standards. “The math instruction on the part of parents should be low,” Zimba said. “The teacher is there to explain the curriculum.” To encourage such submission, Zimba suggested, schools should consider more parental re-education about the standards.

So when a child sits for hours at the kitchen table struggling over math strategies that are counter-intuitive, inefficient, and blindingly stupid, his parents should not ease his pain and improve his education by showing him the simple and efficient way to work the problem. Rather, they should remind him that the teacher is the “expert” and then let him flounder through the rest of his K-12 career without ever learning how to actually do math.

I ran into this sort of thing when my eldest child was about the age of Zimba’s daughter (and when California was first imposing the failed math pedagogies that are now resurrected in Common Core). As a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, I happened to know something about the subject. Once I understood the idiotic and inappropriate things my son was being asked to do, I told him to do what his teachers wanted, to the best of his ability, but as soon as possible to come to me and I would explain what was really going on.

My son finished his education with a Ph.D in molecular biology and worked for years on projects such as the human genome. If I had acted as Zimba advises, my son almost certainly would have had trouble even getting to the level of doing real college work.

History repeats itself in my own family. Just a few weeks ago, my son had been working with a child for whom he’s the guardian, a fourth-grader, to make sure she understood some basic math concepts about place value and how they work in the standard algorithm for long (stairstep) multiplication.

Her fourth-grade teacher would not let her use it.

Instead, she was required to draw pictures of lines, points, and squares, and then laboriously count them up to achieve the product of two whole numbers, each less than 100. She complained to my son, understandably, that she was totally confused and didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to use the standard method that she both understood and realized was tremendously more efficient.

I gave her the same advice I had given my son years ago: Do what’s expected at school, but then come home to learn the math that really matters.

Zimba disapproves of this advice, perhaps because it suggests the Common Core standards he crafted are in some way deficient, which is glaringly obvious to any parent, much less any mathematician. But parents must deal with reality: especially in math, where everything builds on the material learned before. It’s critical that children understand what actually matters and what is supposed to be happening. If they waste a year ensnared in mathematical idiocy, they won’t be able to pick up what they need when they need it later. So asking parents to sit back and watch the sabotaging of their children’s mathematical future rather than intervene to straighten it out is asking them to abdicate their responsibilities as parents.

Perhaps Zimba decries effective parental assistance because it gives the fortunate children, whose parents know what's going on and what should be going on, a huge advantage later in their schooling (as was almost certainly the case with my son). In modern education, where “equity” trumps all, I realize that this is considered unacceptable. But parents aren’t here to sacrifice their children to some cosmic and badly flawed principle of equity – their job is to make sure their children get the education they need. And they manifestly won’t get that from Common Core math.

Zimba can do what he wants with his own kids. But he needs to understand that it is almost criminal to try to prevent other parents from doing what they think necessary with theirs.