Nan Austin

On Campus: Common Core slips a little ‘x’-tra into early grades math

Great teachers make me humble. Coaxing dozens of young brains expertly along the day’s trail, while still heeding the lone voice that missed the turn, takes skill.

Double that admiration for early grade math lessons, which I got to watch last week. Math in every grade gets greater attention under Common Core. After years of drilling problem sets, teachers are being asked to help kids understand the logic, not just the arithmetic.

I helped out in all three of my kids’ elementary classrooms, volunteering to do math activities whenever that was an option. It seemed like an area that got just passing attention in the rush to read and write and cover everything else.

Counting blocks with kindergartners and measuring tables with first-graders were the fun jobs. But in later grades, I found fifth-graders who had no idea if two-thirds was a larger portion than a two-fifths, and sixth-graders who had never grasped negative numbers.

Foundational math concepts somehow missed the mark. Had they had math under the new system, they would have spent more time cutting shapes into equal parts and seeing where negative numbers fall on a number line.

As it was, it fell to a parent volunteer years later to draw divided circles and help them make sense of those two-tier proportions. It took a discussion of spending too much on a charge card to help them understand why adding negative numbers means having less – they memorized the rule and passed the test, but it made no sense to them.

Whether or not Common Core is the be-all, end-all of math systems, the eyes-on, hands-on style alone will mean more kids get the picture. Until every school has plenty of math-loving parent volunteers to go around, count this as a plus.

I watched hourlong lessons in fourth and first grades last week for a story on Engage New York, the free, Common Core-aligned program developed by the state of New York. It is used by Modesto City Schools and countless others, judging from the 6.7 million downloads recorded at the site.

Most amazing moment – realizing those uncooperative little first-grade fingers were solving for “x.” They didn’t see it that way, of course. They were just figuring out that four bright pink flowers needed four more to have as many as three plus five pretty pink blooms.

Put that into an equation, however, and it reads 4 + x = 5 + 3. When these young mathematicians hit actual algebra equations, they should have a far better shot at acing the course.

Consider how many students struggle with algebra now, kids who have known nothing but test-prep math lessons in 12 years under No Child Left Behind and the old standards.

In 2013, 55 percent of Stanislaus County eighth-graders took the state test in algebra, and of those, almost two-thirds scored below proficient. Some 56 percent of high school freshmen also took an algebra course the same year, and 78 percent of them failed to hit the mark. Add to that 31 percent of all sophomores taking algebra that year, with 85 percent falling below proficient. Some 17 percent of juniors took algebra and did even worse.

What that adds up to is a whole lot of kids taking algebra again and again, and still not getting it.

While Common Core is a big change getting a lot of heat, there can be little debate on one point. It is high time to try something else.