I am at that stage in life when I have more time to watch television and yet loathe nearly every bit of entertainment I see in prime time. Instead, I am watching the presidential debates, hoping for some lively exchanges on education.
That hasn’t happened. The Republicans dismiss the Common Core State Standards, the hot issue of the moment, in two words or fewer. The standards are “a disaster,” Donald Trump said. The Democrats seem to ignore them entirely, unless I missed something while getting more fiber-fortified water.
Much better information has come from Common Core parents and teachers whose help I sought in a December column. My son had complained about the tedious new ways of learning math in my grandson’s first-grade class. I asked readers to email me what they thought of the new methods derived from the standards.
Astonishingly, given the political controversy and my own ambivalence about Common Core, almost all of the reactions from people with children in schools have been positive, particularly when talking about math.
Nearly every one of them said they disliked the program at first but changed their minds when they realized that their kids, with good teaching, were learning more with greater enjoyment than they did at that age.
Montgomery County parent Marianne Sullivan said that “like many parents in the early years, we were confused by the math in particular and not very supportive.” But now her twin daughters “understand math concepts so completely after learning ‘that crazy way’ in elementary school that I am a huge believer. They reason and understand. They do not memorize and move on.”
Claus von Zastrow, a father at Ben W. Murch Elementary in the District who has worked in education policy, recalled the derision over new alternative approaches to math. There is, for instance, the “make a 10” method of doing 9+6=15. Students could just memorize that arithmetic fact, von Zastrow said. But making a 10 allows them to put the numbers together in a way that promotes number sense: 9+6=(9+1)+5=10+5=15.
“The make-a-10 method is in common use in high-performing countries,” he said, but Common Core critics “had a field day with it because it takes half an hour to explain and about 20 seconds to ridicule.”
Hadley Danielson, a mother and tutor in Shelton, Wash., said, “My first reaction to a Common Core worksheet was repulsion. It’s ugly math. It doesn’t look pretty or easy.” But she wanted her second-grade son to do well, so “I set that aside and learned how to do what he was doing. And something magical happened: I started doing math better in my head.”
An Arlington County father said letting students try their own ways to get an answer helped him understand why he hated math as a child. “It never made any sense,” he said. “It was just numbers and formulas for the sake of finding other numbers and formulas.” It was better, he said, for his daughter to “come up with a solution . . . and then work out the math to fit. That’s how the world works.”
Some parents complained that their schools didn’t do enough to help them or their children understand the changes.
“We need resources in place for parents to be able to help,” said Stephanie Szewczyk of Howard County. Mark Mohan, a Montgomery parent, said his child had no textbook, just links to websites that sometimes weren’t relevant to the lesson.
Still, a Howard County math teacher said, “Students are responding well to the approach because they are being required to think more deeply than ever before.”
We parents and grandparents certainly aren’t getting much help from our political leaders in figuring out this latest effort to move schools forward. But it seems that, from what I am hearing, if we support our kids and their teachers as they figure it out, they can make progress.