GREENWELL SPRINGS, La. – Rebekah and Kevin Nelams moved to their modest brick home in this suburb of Baton Rouge seven years ago because it has one of the top-performing public school districts in the state. But starting this fall, the couple plans to home-school their four elementary-age children.
The main reason: the method for teaching math that is part of the Common Core, a set of academic standards adopted by more than 40 states.
Rebekah Nelams said she did not recognize the approaches her children, ages 7 to 10, were being asked to use on math worksheets. They were frustrated by the pictures, dots and sheer number of steps needed to solve some problems.“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” Rebekah Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”
Across the country, parents who once conceded that their homework expertise petered out by high school trigonometry are now feeling helpless when confronted with first-grade worksheets. Stoked by viral postings online that ridicule math homework, along with mockery from comedians including Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert, these parents are adding to an increasingly fierce political debate about whether the Common Core is another way in which Washington is taking over people’s lives.
In Louisiana, the dispute intensified this month when Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wanted to withdraw the state from the Common Core, although others questioned his authority to do so. Already, the legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have repealed the Common Core standards, and for many candidates running for political office, their views on the standards have become crucial election issues.
The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.
This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of teaching math have yielded lackluster results. In global tests, American students lag behind children in several Asian countries and some European nations, and the proportion of students achieving advanced levels is low.
Common Core slims down curriculums so that students can spend more time grasping specific mathematical concepts.
The guidelines are based on research that shows that students taught conceptually retain the math they learn. And many longtime math teachers, backed by organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, have championed the standards.
“I taught math very much like the Common Core for many years,” said Linda M. Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math. “When parents would question it, my response was ‘Just hang in there with me,’ and at the end of the year they would come and say this was the best year their kids had in math.”
But for parents, the transition has been hard. Moreover, textbooks and other materials have not yet caught up with the new standards, and educators unaccustomed to learning or teaching more conceptually are sometimes getting tongue-tied when explaining new methodologies.
“It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of highly skilled experts,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, “and then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to classrooms and textbooks.”
Even supporters of the Common Core say that changes are being pushed too quickly. Rushing to institute a new math curriculum does not make sense if you are “planning to get the job done in a rational way,” said Phil Daro, one of three principal writers of the Common Core math standards.
“To make a student feel like they’re not good at math because they can’t explain something that to them seems incredibly obvious clearly isn’t good for the student,” said W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University.
In Louisiana, John White, state superintendent of education, said that politics aside, applying the Common Core math standards would take time.
“This is a shift for an entire society,” he said. “No one should be under any illusion that it’s going to take just a year or two to rethink the way that we teach mathematics, because it is really challenging.”
Laci Maniscalco, a third-grade teacher in Lafayette, La., who said that sometimes her students cried during the past year when working on problems under the new curriculum, said she had seen genuine progress in their understanding – and in her own, as well.
“I have told my students countless times that I wish I had been taught the way you are having the opportunity to learn,” she said.