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Education Trends, Uncategorized   |   Jan 4, 2013

Ralphie’s math vs. the Common Core

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Ralphie’s math vs. the Common Core

By Angela Watson

Like half of America, I spent some time watching “A Christmas Story” over the holidays. Re-watching is probably the more accurate term, since this viewing was approximately number 429. And each time another year passes and I watch that movie again, I find myself even more in awe of the scenes in Ralphie’s classroom. The teacher leaving the kids alone in the classroom to go outside? Yeah, right. Teaching the words to Yankee Doodle? Sure.

This year, I was thinking most about how our math instruction has changed over the past sixty years. I realize that a screenshot from a Christmas movie isn’t a fair representation of the curricular scope covered in the 1950s, but there’s no doubt that expectations have been raised since then. When Ralphie was nine years old, the math problems he had to solve looked like this:


In 2012/2013, third grade math problems look like this (from the New York Common Core Sample Assessments):


And they look like this (would YOU, a grown adult, know how to solve this problem without re-reading it several times?):


Sometimes I wonder if the people making curriculum decisions think students are machines whose minds can be programmed to be 10,000 times smarter than the machines from decades ago. Do they realize we’re talking about little kids here? Have they spent any time with actual children? Three digit addition was hard for third graders in the 1950s, and it’s hard for them today. We can’t keep expecting more and more and more of our students and believe that with the right learning environment, their very young minds (and developing attention spans) will somehow be able to keep up.

I get the feeling I’m not supposed to say any of this, that putting these kinds of ideas out there will lead to accusations that I don’t believe in our students. It seems politically incorrect to imply that there is a limit to how much a child can do. I’m supposed to make a broad idealistic statement here that all children who enter through our classroom doors would be fully capable of solving multi-step algebra word problems at the age of eight, if only they had optimal schools and teachers. But I’m just not convinced. Is the old adage that students will rise to their teachers’ expectations supposed to apply to every aspect of a curriculum that seems to double in rigor every ten years? And if students aren’t meeting those expectations, is it solely the school’s fault?

I’m constantly hearing the implication–and even the outright statement on occasion–that America’s schools are “failing” because of poor teaching. I don’t see how anyone can look at those math problems above and maintain the belief that teaching is easy and educators have it made with their “6.5 hour work days” and summers off. I wish that people outside the classroom would consider the incredible level of skill and expertise needed to make 21st century curricula accessible for 30 kids simultaneously, especially when those children exhibit an astoundingly wide range of academic abilities and socio-emotional issues.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying Ralphie’s classroom is the model of good education and we should go back to teaching only computation, fact memorization, and rote learning. Nor do I think it’s impossible for our kids to be successful with today’s curriculum. Increased rigor is a good thing. Problem solving and critical thinking should be the foundation of the way our students learn, and even very young children are capable of it.

I’m just advocating for a little more awareness of what’s developmentally appropriate, and a little more compassion and understanding for the students and teachers who are struggling to keep up with all that’s required of them.

Can I get some acknowledgment that what we’re doing in the classroom these days is HARD? It’s never been done before in the history of schooling. We’re attempting to give a world class education to EVERY child who walks through our doors, and we’re teaching skills that weren’t even named fifty years ago. This is ground-breaking, revolutionary stuff, and that needs to be recognized instead of glossed over in the rush to criticize teachers for falling short. Similarly, I’d like to see less bewilderment over how poorly our students score on tests, and a little more appreciation of how much these tests require of students and how hard kids need to work if they’re going to meet the ever-increasing demands.

This year, I hope that we’ll keep moving forward and help our students achieve even more. They deserve to have the very best education. But the way to provide that quality education is to raise the bar thoughtfully and intentionally, and do it while providing the support that teachers and students need to be successful. I’m not sure of what that looks like on a practical level, but I figure having some conversations about this is a step in the right direction.

What are your thoughts? How has your curriculum changed over the years? How do we balance the increased rigor of the Common Core with the developmental needs of our students?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I totally agree with you! I gave my class (4th/5th grade) a math facts test just before we went on winter break. 60 problems, 3 minutes. I have 4 students (out of 29) who got 100% of them done and correct. Just 4. I have students who got 1 right in 3 minutes. Yet I will be blamed that these children don’t know their math facts (something we start teaching in 2ND GRADE–I know because I taught 2nd last year and we had to show proof that they knew their 0-5 facts).

    It’s frustrating. I think that many times we just move on, without really showing that the students know or understand what is going on, especially with math. I think the Common Core is a good thing. Perfect? Of course not, but definitely a step in the right direction. Children need rigor in order to succeed in HS and college. However, a lot of what we ask students to do, isn’t very developmentally appropriate.

    A couple years ago, my district partnered with the Institute for Learning and they created a bunch of “high rigor” writing units for us. Except that these “high rigor” writing units have students sitting through FIVE ENTIRE LESSONS OF TEACHER TALK before they ever really even pick up a pencil. That’s not rigor and it sure isn’t developmentally appropriate. They were created by researchers, not teachers. I doubt very much any of those folks who created them had ever been in front of a classroom of real children.

    Another example, we are using Reading Street for our weekly reading program (its our 2nd year with it). I like it, the stories are good and its a very balanced approach to literacy instruction. However, my district had grade-level based PD this summer (ie all 4th grade teachers from the district at one venue) and our task was to come up with higher order questions to ask while we’re engaged in the shared reading. The 4th grade team did this independently–each school worked together and made questions based on their students needs. But the other grades did it collectively and then sent out a list of questions we’re supposed to ask our kids while we read the stories together. I get the concept but my kids aren’t like the kids across town or even in the school three blocks over! You can’t simply give them “cookie cutter” questions and expect that to be rigorous.

    I stick by my motto a lot….smile and nod and then close my door and teach to my students strengths and needs. It can’t be cookie-cutter because the KIDS aren’t cookie cutter!

    (If you can’t tell, you struck a cord with me on this one lol)

    1. Raye, thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you pointed out that memorizing basic math facts is still challenging for kids these days. Expecting them to do so much more on top of that requires a tremendous amount of work on the part of the teacher, parents, AND students.

      I, too, hope that the Common Core leads to more time spent on each skill and concept so we can ensure students have demonstrated mastery before moving on. That’s something that most of us have not had the luxury of doing in recent years, and our students have suffered because of it. I remember having to teach my 3rd graders metric AND customary units of measurement for length, width, temperature, AND volume all in a two week period. Do you think my students really understood or remembered any of that? The new pacing is much more realistic. Depth over breadth.

  2. I looked at that New York sample assessment for third grade at the beginning of the year and it’s been giving me nightmares ever since! The ELA test features a short story from Tolstoy; the first time I saw it I honestly thought the third grade test must have been mixed up with eighth grade or something. Unfortunately, it was the correct test, and apparently this is the type of literature the test writers think third graders should be able to read and comprehend. While I agree in theory with the increased rigor expected from teachers and students as we transition to the Common Core, I also completely agree with your thoughts about how our instruction needs to be developmentally appropriate. Should we really expect our third graders to be reading and understanding Tolstoy?

    1. Shauna, I’d be curious to know which of the Tolstoy’s short stories was featured on the ELA test. I’m asking this because although Tolstoy is most famous in the US for his novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he in fact wrote a series of children tales and fables. He intended these to be used as primers by young kids who just learned to read (he actually taught reading, writing and arithmetic to peasant children, so he wrote with a specific audience in mind, so to speak). These stories follow very precise and simple internal structure and have short sentences that help young children understand the text. At least they do in Russian. In fact, Russian children are introduced to some of these stories as early as first grade.

      1. Thanks for sharing that, Shauna and Yelena! I’m not familiar with Tolstoy’s writings for children or the Tolstoy passage for third graders–will have to look into that.

  3. Thanks, Angela, for this thought-provoking piece. I especially liked the part where you wonder whether test writers have actually met a real-life kid. Interestingly enough, it seems like our test-writers and their companies stand to make BIG bucks off of assessing our littlest learners, so I’m not sure they’ll ever see the need for things to change. As a staff, we completed a few practice STAAR (TX) test items (from several different levels between third and eighth grades) on our first-day back from winter break last January and we as educated professionals were struggling to answer several of the items correctly …. yikes …. throw in the fact that many of these kids come to school hungry or sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden or depressed and you have a recipe for failure, not success. We need a stronger voice with our legislators until they hear us say, “enough!”

    1. I appreciate that, Barbara. The money-making aspect of testing is another can of worms, entirely! We have to always remember that corporations are making big bucks off of the testing systems. They’re in it to make a profit, not to improve education, and so we need to think critically and carefully about how we use those resources and allow them to impact our teaching.

  4. I totally agree! The children are expected to perform more and more complex tasks, yet they are still little kids! They still need time to run and climb and sing and create, and just once in a while, do nothing! It worries me that we are creating more problems with our youth by putting them under this much pressure without allowing them time to do what children need to do.

    I also agree that the schools of the 50s aren’t the best answers either. However, there must be some “in between” where children can learn to think without giving up their childhood!

    1. Sally, I, too, wish there was more time for kids to be kids. Play is such an important part of learning, and I hope that it doesn’t get completely lost in the pressure for children to do more rigorous academics. Learning and play CAN go hand in hand.

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