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How The Common Core Is Changing Math Instruction For Elementary Students

Elle Moxley

  If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve probably seen parents complaining that the Common Core has ruined math for their kids.

They’ll share comedian Louis CK’s bit about the incompressible homework his kids are bringing home.

“‘Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?,’” he tells David Letterman. “Or something like that.”

That's an extreme example, but if you have school-age kids, you’ll probably agree something is different. The Common Core, a set of nationally crafted standards being taught in Kansas, Missouri and most other states, is changing how young students learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

If you ask Emily Callahan, a fourth-grade teacher at Ravenwood Elementary in the North Kansas City School District in Missouri, that’s a good thing.

“If you were to go survey people on the street right now, when you say the word ‘algebra,’ most of them would probably say, ‘I hated it,’” Callahan says.

Callahan says she's not trying to put down algebra, but she talks to parents all the time who associate algebra with “the rules.” Learn this formula. Plug in that number. Solve for Y.

New standards shift focus from procedures to concepts

Architects of the Common Core academic standards say the new expectations will help develop a conceptual understanding of math. 

“What we’re doing now in elementary school is teaching them how numbers work. So by the time they get to middle school, high school, college, they don’t just have in their brain a ton of set procedures, all these rules,” Callahan says.

To demonstrate, Callahan writes this problem on the board: 400 minus 278.

“If kids really aren’t taught to think about numbers, they might just immediately go to what we call stacking, or the traditional algorithm,” she says.

They’ll line it up and almost immediately run into trouble.

“Kids might just go OK, yep. I know I’m going to have to borrow. I’m going to have to regroup. Then, looky there,” she says. “There’s a couple of zeros. And so they think to themselves if they don’t have a true understanding about what subtraction is, they might say, 'OK I need to cross this out, and I know I need to make that a ten and I think I need to' – they just get bogged down in a series of steps.”

Callahan says when kids are too focused on procedure, they’re not really worried about whether their answer is reasonable. They make mistakes.

She calls on a student with her hand up, who answers 222. The right answer is 122.

Kids learning new strategies for old problems

Callahan calls on another student, one who got the question right, to explain how he did it.

“I added the 2 to 278,” the student says.

“OK, so he started with 278. He did that to get to a landmark number, 280.”

Callahan calls this strategy "adding up." Instead of worrying about borrowing and regrouping, just add. 

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR
Instead of encouraging students to borrow when they subtract, Callahan teaches that some problems are better solved with quick mental addition.

278 + 2 = 280

280 + 20 = 300

300 + 100 = 400

2 + 20 + 100 = 122

It’s the kind of math you can do in your head. 

When Callahan explains it this way to parents – she sends home lots and lots of pictures, she says – it clicks.

“Because some parents are like, oh my goodness, this is how I’ve always thought, but I always had to follow the rules,” she says.

Callahan says she knows some people will always prefer the standard algorithm, which is still taught and included in the standards for fourth grade. But she says it’s also really important to get kids thinking about numbers, about if they make sense or not.

When the student who thought the answer was 222 hears her classmate’s reasoning, she realizes her mistake.

“When I heard his thinking, I thought that it was way too high,” the first student says.

Here’s the thing – the Common Core might be working for teachers such as Callahan, but a lot of people still have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of national education standards. They’re worried about losing local control.

Missouri lawmakers have tasked state education officials with reviewing the standards and setting new ones by 2016.

And even though all schools are supposed to be on the same page with standards, they have vastly different resources with which to implement them. That means the quality of Common Core instruction can vary widely between districts – and likely will continue to do so when the state rolls out changes in two years.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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