Common Core Common Sense: Myths About the Standards, Part 3

Common Core Standards

In recent months, there’s been a tremendous amount of buzz regarding an educational change called Common Core. And a ton of that buzz perpetuates down-right false information. There’s so much to say about this that I’ve developed a five-part series debunking these myths — or outright lies, if you’re being cynical. This is the third in that series (read Myth 1 and Myth 2), which will continue on Wednesdays throughout August and into September. Of course, I’ll be writing from a math perspective. Photo Credit: Watt_Dabney via Compfight cc

Myth #3: The Standards Introduce Algebra Too Late

One of the reasons for Common Core is to be sure that when students graduate from high school they are ready for college and/or the job market. And these days that means having some advance math skills under their belts. But if you read the Common Core course headings, algebra is not mentioned until high school.

Up to this point, the math is referred to by the grade level, not subject(s) covered. So at first glance, this looks suspiciously like there is no mention of algebra in middle school. You have to dig a little deeper to learn that tough algebraic concepts are covered in the middle school standards. In fact, algebra is introduced (in an extremely conceptual way, with no mention of the word algebra) in kindergarten!

The Common Core math standards are divided into domains — or mathematical concepts. Here is the full list:

  • Counting & Cardinality
  • Operations & Algebraic Thinking
  • Number & Operations in Base Ten
  • Number & Operations — Fractions
  • Measurement & Data
  • Geometry
  • Ratios & Proportional Relationships
  • The Number System
  • Expressions & Equations
  • Functions
  • Statistics & Probability

Of this list, you can find algebraic ideas and skills in at least four domains: Operations & Algebraic Thinking, Ratios & Proportional Relationships, Expressions & Equations and Functions. (You can argue that algebra appears in others as well.) In kindergarten, students are introduced to the idea of an equation, like this: 3 + 2 = 5. They also answer questions like this: What number can you add to 9 to get 10? (Algebraically speaking this question is x + 9 = 10, what is x?)

Variables aren’t introduced until much later, in 6th grade, when students are expected to “write, read, and evaluate expressions in which letters stand for numbers.” At this point, students begin to learn the language of algebra, with vocabulary words like coefficient (in the expression 3x, 3 is the coefficient) and term (in the expression 3x – 6, 3x and 6 are terms). Also in 6th grade, they start solving simple equations and inequalities, like 4 + x = 7 and 5x = 15.

In 8th grade, radicals and exponents are introduced, and students learn to solve simple equations with these operations. In addition, graph lines and put equations into point-slope form and slope-intercept form, and begin solving systems of equations (pairs of equations with two variables). They also make connections between an equation of a line and the graph of a line. Finally, functions are introduced in 8th grade.

All of that happens well before high school, leaving lots of time in high school to delve into polynomials, quadratic equations and conic sections.

But here’s the most important thing: under Common Core, students are given a tremendous amount of context for all of this math, as well as time to develop true numeracy. This can speed along algebraic understanding. For example, students who are fluent with multiples and factors of whole numbers and decimals will have a much easier time learning how to solve equations by factoring. That’s because they will have the foundation of factoring or expanding. They will be able to use the distributive property with ease and focus their attention on the new concepts being presented.

In other words, this slow build develops numeracy.

So don’t let the Common Core headings fool you. Algebraic concepts and skills are meted out throughout the grade levels, allowing students to truly understand foundational concepts and fluently perform basic algebraic skills well before high school begins.

Got a question about the Common Core Standards for Mathematics? Please ask! Disagree with my assessment above? Share it! And if you missed Myth #1 or Myth #2, you can find the here and here.

Common Core Common Sense: Myths About the Standards, Part 2

Common Core Standards

In recent months, there’s been a tremendous amount of buzz regarding an educational change called Common Core. And a ton of that buzz perpetuates down-right false information. There’s so much to say about this that I’ve developed a five-part series debunking these myths — or outright lies, if you’re being cynical. This is the second in that series (read the first here), which will continue on Wednesdays throughout August and into September. Of course, I’ll be writing from a math perspective. Photo Credit: Watt_Dabney via Compfight cc

Myth #2: The Standards Omit Basic Math Facts

While grabbing a latte at the local Starbucks a few weeks ago, I ran into a friend of mine. She was taking a break from teaching cursive to high school students at a nearby private school’s summer program.

“Kids don’t learn cursive in elementary school anymore, and so they can’t sign their names,” she explained. “Kids aren’t even required to learn their multiplication tables these days!” 

Well, I know for a fact that multiplication facts are covered in math classes across the country, including those in our fair city. But there’s this idea out there that third-graders are using calculators to find 8 x 2. While I don’t doubt that this has happened on at least one occasion, it’s not a trend in education. And math facts are a part of the Common Core.

The Common Core Standards emphasize critical thinking. And without a foundation in basic facts, students will not be able to apply critical thinking skills to problem solving of any kind.

Sure, there is no Common Core Standard that says students must be able to recite the multiplication tables 1 through 12 by heart. Instead, Common Core focuses on the concept of multiplication — which is pretty darned complex — encouraging teachers to illustrate multiplication with arrays (the picture below is an array), equal-sized groups, and area. The difference boils down to this: We grownups probably memorized that 8 x 2 = 16, while today’s students might figure it out on their own with a drawing like this:

• • • • • • • •

• • • • • • • •

 

The array above gives context to multiplication. Students can see for themselves that there are two rows of eight dots and 16 dots in all. The simple illustration even offers students a way to discover (or remember) the math fact themselves before memorization naturally occurs. In short, it’s much more meaningful than flash cards.

And while the example above is very visual, the idea behind it is flexible, allowing students with different learning styles to understand multiplication. A more kinetic (tactile) student can arrange 16 pennies in an array. A student with an aural learning style can count the dots out loud — in rows, in columns and in total. And so on.

There are plenty of other math facts included in the Common Core Standards, from the properties of number systems to formulas for area and volume. But I admit, you won’t find anything like, “Students will recite the value of π to the ninth decimal place.”

And this is a great change from more traditional approaches. Because, nothing sucks the life out of learning like memorization. Besides, can you remember the formula for the surface area of a cube? If not, could you figure it out or find it online? In my opinion, we want students to kick ass in the figuring-out option — to know that a cube has six sides that are exactly alike, and that surface area is figured when you add the area of each of the sides. Knowing those little details means that a formula isn’t necessary.

So yeah, Common Core hasn’t eliminated math facts. They’re just not front and center, leaving much more room for critical thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Got a question about the Common Core Standards for Mathematics? Please ask! Disagree with my assessment above? Share it! And if you missed Myth #1, you can find it here.