Nan Austin

District offers an aspirin for the Common Core math homework headache

Silvia Klein lays out cards in ascending order during the first Common Core Math Night at Sisk Elementary in north Modesto last week.
Silvia Klein lays out cards in ascending order during the first Common Core Math Night at Sisk Elementary in north Modesto last week.

Frustrated parents headed to Salida Union Elementary District seeking the insider code that would help them decipher Common Core mathematics.

“I’m so stressed by this math!” said grandmother Diana Reyes. “We didn’t do math like this in my day. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

This is what math master Viji Sundar fully expected to hear. Common Core’s rollout was bumpy at best, she said.

“The problem is, there was no demonstration. There was no learning time,” she told the group.

Two things to know here: Sundar is a Common Core math fan, and second, she knows more than most Ph.D.-toting university professors about how to teach it.

Her day job is professor of mathematics at California State University, Stanislaus, and head of its Mathematics Grants and Sponsored Programs. She also leads the Central California Mathematics Project, the local hub of a statewide project to strengthen math teaching from kindergarten through college.

For younger students, Sundar founded and directs the High School Mathematics Access Program (better known as HiMAP), a fee-based grade school program on Saturdays at Stan State. In addition, each spring break and summer, she and a team of university math majors and future teachers head to some of the highest-poverty elementary schools in Modesto to provide math camps.

Her enthusiasm for her subject bubbled over as she bounded around the Salida Union Elementary District boardroom on Thursday, trying to help adults long past math lessons appreciate an entirely new way of learning the subject.

It was a tough slog.

But the parents and grandparents who came shaking their heads have up to six more sessions to get the gist. The district is providing Common Core Math Nights, complete with T-shirts, to help parents transition alongside their children.

“The Common Core is going to make your life a beautiful thing,” Sundar said with confidence. “Your child will not want to eat dinner, will not want ice cream. He will just want to do math,” Sundar said with a laugh. Turning serious, she added, “Really, kids want to be challenged.”

The overview session was spent trying to help folks see the larger picture.

“Nobody can teach you everything. The purpose of Common Core is to open your mind,” she told them, explaining that it teaches kids to understand math, not just do problems.

For example, a homework question that stumped one attendee called for multiplying 75 times 1.5. The child could not get the decimal point in the right place and the grandparent could not remember the rule.

Try adding one 75 plus one-half of 75, suggested Sundar – “That’s what you’re really doing.”

The grandmother grasped it in a snap – light bulb moment. She understood the math even if she could not remember the rule. A broad smile crossed her face.

But others remained scowling with arms crossed, unconvinced there would be any end to the daily homework ordeal.

“I am not a stupid man,” said Stephen Sherbert, father of a fourth- and a sixth-grader who used to get A’s in math, but no longer. “The core is, it teaches without a common process,” he said.

In other words, it does not follow an established way to do something.

For kids taught since kindergarten to just follow the sequence and memorize the formula, the change to a completely different ethos – try this, try that, figure it out – can be traumatic.

For teachers trained to follow the textbook to the letter because test-aligned uniformity was a good thing, the switch has been just as hard.

“(Their teachers) don’t see a use for (Common Core). They’re telling them it’s busy work,” Sherbert said.

Think about that for a minute: Teachers told students what they were teaching was useless “busy work,” and now the kids are confused and struggling. That goes beyond a curriculum problem.

Granted, in a perfect world, any complete revamp of teaching math would have started in kindergarten and moved up grade by grade. Textbooks in hand. Teachers prepared. Parents informed.

That is not how “new math” rolled out in the 1960s, or any other educational wave. But in a perfect world ...

It would still be a change and parents would still face homework they did not recognize – every generation does.

I will never forget the day I helped my daughter circle the predicate on her English homework – she got every single one wrong, her first-ever F. My mother taught me to diagram a sentence subject, verb, predicate. My daughter’s class was taught the predicate included the verb (and should have been circled). Today, Wikipedia assures me, the predicate is basically just the verb.

Clearly, they are teaching grammar all wrong. But in math, they may be on to something.

No matter how many people say the old way was best, Silicon Valley has to import talent for programming jobs and thousands of high-paying engineering and science positions sit unfilled. Math is the gatekeeper for all those fields, so something in the old system was not working.

Time to give something else a chance, and getting back to understanding math basics – even with wonky phrasing and counterintuitive methods – might be a good place to start.

Salida Union Elementary District parents can reserve a spot for Common Core Math Nights by calling 209-543-9452.