Stoops: One teacher’s indictment of Common Core math

The annual Collaborative Conference for Student Achievement allows public school employees to hear from practitioners, experts, and advocates who share the goal of ensuring that all public school students are successful.  I enjoy reviewing the presentations from the conference because they are full of ideas, observations, information, and perspectives that are difficult to obtain otherwise.  (I question, however, whether the benefits of the conference outweigh the cost.  There is little evidence that student achievement increases as a result of participation.  That is a discussion for another day.)

CommenTerry by Dr. Terry Stoops

by Dr. Terry Stoops

The range and scope of topics discussed by participants is impressive.  One of many that caught my eye was “Ramp Up Rigor with the 8 Mathematical Practices,” a presentation by Ashley Hammond, a teacher at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Henderson County who also serves on the Governor’s Teacher Network.  Mrs. Hammond was one of many teachers from the Governor’s Teacher Network to lead a breakout session.

Her focus was finding ways to improve mathematics instruction for elementary school students.  She identified three problems that she is trying to solve.  They are as follows:

  • Students are coming to 4th grade with a lack of number sense.
  • There is a tremendous gap in mathematical achievement among the 4th graders in my classroom.
  • My 4th graders have difficulty problem solving independently. Many don’t know where to start.

Come again?

I’ll address the second point first.  In some respects, there will be a gap in mathematical achievement in any given classroom.  Students arrive with different educational experiences.  In many cases, it is the luck of the draw.  One student may have been fortunate enough to be taught by excellent teachers, while another may have encountered teachers who are less effective instructors. Only an extraordinary teacher can compensate for the latter, while advancing the former.  Ideally, teachers would never have to, but in the real world, teachers have to find ways to address these differences.

The first and third points are disturbing.

According to Mrs. Hammond, students are arriving in fourth-grade with no intuitive understanding of numbers and numerical relationships and little sense of how to solve problems independently, even though both are among the core tenets of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics.  Indeed, today’s fourth-grade students have had four years of Common Core-based math.  It is all they know.  And is this the result?

It is important to refrain from generalizations here.  Surely not all teachers encounter the problems identified by Ms. Hammond.  On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that this is an isolated incident.  It is difficult to know how widespread it is.  Teachers have been reluctant to criticize Common Core because they have a legitimate fear of reprisal from colleagues and supervisors.

At this point, supporters of Common Core math will counter that the problem is not the standards themselves but how they are implemented in the classroom, i.e., it’s teachers’ fault.  Perhaps the K-3 teachers at Sugarloaf Elementary School just don’t know how to connect their instructional approaches with the math standards.  That’s possible.  It is also possible that the standards may be difficult for the average elementary school teacher to implement, regardless of competence or ability.  I prefer to give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

I am confident that Mrs. Hammond never thought that anyone would give so much attention to one of thousands of slides presented at the Collaborative Conference for Student Achievement.  Yet, no other presentation so clearly signaled the need to rethink math standards and instructional practices in North Carolina.

Terry Stoops is the director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.

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