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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. You bring up some excellent points, particularly about standardized testing. However, I am very curious about the term “developmentally appropriate” in the context of math curriculum. (I am not a teacher and have only a limited experience with the US school system)

    Much of the K, 1st and 2nd grade math is too simplistic and boring. My 5-year old believes there are two kinds of math – the stupid math (his words) and the fun math. Stupid math is when I ask him how much is 5+3 or 10-5 (not because he always knows the right answer, he’s not that good with the number facts yet, but because “it is about nothing and Mom already knows the answer”. The fun math, for him, is when he learns multiplication with two mirrors, learns about logic gates with dominoes, and learns geometry (and even exponentiation) with origami.

    I’m not saying math facts and fractions are stupid or unnecessary. We do need them. And it’s probably not realistic to build a math curriculum that’s entirely play-based and exploratory (nor is it necessary, IMHO). But it seems the curriculum is unbalanced and favors arithmetic and number manipulation skills over mathematical thinking.

    I come from a different (and also far from ideal) school system. And no, I didn’t get to learn trigonometry at 6 and calculus at 10. I did, however, knew my multiplication tables by the end of the 2nd grade and fractions by the end of 4th grade, but so did most of the kids in my very average public inner city school. It wasn’t particularly fun, but it wasn’t all that difficult either.

    I am in no way saying that teachers in the US are not doing their job right. I think US teachers are working very hard and are very dedicated. But something is not right with the system itself. (Sorry for the long-winded comment and my grammar).

    1. Yelena has hit the nail on the head. If we are only going to keep tweaking our same system, there will be no marked improvement. I retired from the public schools in 2011 after 40 years of experience. Since that time I have been reading, reading, reading about the newest research and about the successes of school systems in other countries. If you look at the Finnish system you will see they begin reading instruction much later than we do. (There are those who roll their eyes at the mere suggestion of learning something from another country. They are part of the problem.) Our push for reading in kindergarten actually creates problems for some students later on, especially boys. (read Lillian Katz) Think of all those children in Title I classes. Should there be any exposure to reading in kindergarten? Yes, I believe that with many children we should begin at age four working with them in a very language-rich environment, exposing them to all sorts of print, stories, poems, chants, etc. We just should NOT be asking them to read arbitrary lists of words or any words unless they begin on their own. Reading is a very complex process. It needs time. BUT, new research about children and math indicates that we are born with some mathematical abilities which we should be taking advantage of early on. Put two toddlers on the floor. Put one cookie in front of one. Give the other 3 0r 4. What happens? That’s right. There will be some whining, crying, grabbing going on. That’s math, people. For how many ages have people been going to market to shop without being able to read? Many, many, many. There may be some aspects of Common Core that are wonderful, but it is not the answer, just as testing is not the answer unless you happen to be a company named Pearson.
      I remain so frustrated for our children. I will continue to speak to this issue as long as I am able.

      1. Maggie, that’s another thing I forgot to mention. In many other countries children do not start formal instructions until they are 7 or 8 years old. In the US it’s 5 (I think it’s also 5 in the UK, but not sure). 5 might be ok for some kids, but most are simply too young. This doesn’t mean kids should not be learning. But they should learn through play and discovering things with the guidance of teachers, not necessarily with their direct instructions. And testing and test-based curriculum – it’s just about the worst thing that can happen to early learners, IMHO.

      2. I read about the Finnish educational system and was amazed at their success. However, 97% of the people speak the Finnish language. Here in the U.S., you are lucky if there are children who even read in English. So, I am not sure that is a good comparison. I agree that we’ve got to stop tweaking the system and trying new things…or, as many of us say, the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth.

    2. Yelena, I really like your point about challenging our students. Rote learning and fact memorization IS boring. Kids like to solve real problems, not made-up ones that are presented in the textbook just so they have work to do. My guess is that the “fun math” your little one is referring to involves solving authentic problems. That’s something that’s being emphasized more and more in school and it’s a very good thing.

      Maggie, the concept of kids starting school later is an interesting one. Part of me supports that and sees it working well in countries like Finland, while the other part of me worries about kids who will sit in front of a TV for seven years straight if we push schooling back. Regardless, our system of moving the first grade curriculum of the 1980s up to the modern kindergarten curriculum is not developmentally appropriate, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts–I agree 100%.

      1. Angela, I didn’t mean that the children in Finland aren’t in school until they’re 7. They are in school, but they are not being exposed to formal instruction in reading until age 7.
        “Finnish children do not begin primary school until they are seven years old. But from the age of eight months, all children have access to free, full-day daycare and kindergarten. Finland has had universal access to daycare in place since 1990, and of all preschool since 1996.” That quote is from The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

        1. Thanks for clarifying this Maggie. Sorry, I should have put more thought into my reply! My understanding is that the schooling Finnish children receive prior to age seven is not focused on academic skills but on socio-emotional development and play. Having these opportunities prepares them for formal learning in significant ways. I know that free high-quality daycare from birth to age seven is probably not going to be a reality here in America, so I focused on how a later start for formal academic instruction would affect kids here. It’s a much different story in Finland, and my reply didn’t acknowledge that. I would love to see American children have access to the high-quality early childhood education that many children in Europe have. That would change the entire scope of this discussion.

  2. The elephant is in the room and it’s time everyone talk about him. Thank you for your post. It’s not about whether or not we think children are capable of doing “the work” – increasingly more of it and more complex at the wrong grades or more scripted at the wrong grades. Rather than freeing teachers to teach THEIR students, today’s classrooms demand that teachers follow a script that obviates the learners in their classrooms. More kids left behind? You betcha! The problem is that “the work” has been translated to mean more and more content and, particularly, developmentally inappropriate content for kids at all levels. Play has been thrown out the window; in fact, it has become a dirty word. We have less and less time to do the important things (building character, critical thinking, inquiry, collaboration, conversation, etc.) in classrooms because the curriculum dictates the content that must be taught in classrooms and it’s not about working together and collaborating on projects. Yes, teachers are working very hard but it seems that more and more teachers are working very hard at the wrong things. Instead of elevating the profession of education, we are dumbing it down and losing kids and teachers along the way.

    1. Well said, Elisa!! More is not always better. I especially appreciate your point about how the teaching profession is becoming more demanding and yet is simultaneously being dumbed down.

  3. Thanks so much for your thoughts. You hit the nail on the head. The one thing I appreciate the most is that this is a nationwide issue and not just in my district. This is my 40th year teaching. I still love it. I like the Common Core, especially for math. Number sense is so important to our students. Too many ‘know’ basic facts (I’m primary) but can not relate and ‘see’ the way numbers work. Common core gives me time to develop this.
    However, we in education, are not the ‘experts’ today. We do not have the respect of years ago. It disappoints me that our opinion of kids and their learning is trumped by our supposed desire to have the summers off and work 9-3. Somehow the experts aren’t educators at all. I fear this will not change until the public understands that most of us work hard, care about kids, and really do understand what they need to learn. Unfortunately the ‘odd ducks’ of our profession often get the press. Parent and student letters of appreciation, ‘aha’ moments from students, and team work with colleagues keeps me going.
    Again, Angela, THANKS!

  4. I totally agree! Kids are having a harder time enjoying school because of the higher demands placed on them, and teachers are feeling the pressure as well, which just makes for a grumpy situation. Another concern I have with “modern” math is that you have to be an excellent reader and writer to accomplish many of the tasks. We also have trouble with parents complaining that they don’t understand the math homework they are trying to help the kids with. (What goes around comes around. I’m hoping the pendulum swings a bit back to centre again.)
    I do keep high standards in my classroom, but let’s dial it simpler a bit, to let the basic math sink in a bit deeper and firmer – at appropriate ages – before dumping them into things like algebra.

    1. I’ve been in the classroom for 30 years and have seen many things come and go….and come and go again. I am also a student of Child Development. All I can say is that Piaget and Montessori must be spinning in their graves. I am so tired of being forced to implement new curriculum and strategies developed by “experts”. We know what our children need and how they learn. I am the expert!

  5. I teach honors chemistry to 10th and 11th graders. They are singularly incapable of using the density = mass / volume equation to find mass or volume. They are incapable of dividing a number by ten without pulling out a calculator. They don’t understand that when you divide a number by a larger number, the answer needs to be smaller than one. They don’t understand that when you take an average, the answer has to be between the smallest value and the largest value you averaged together. I can’t imagine them being able to understand let alone solve the kinds of problems you set forth as examples for nine-year-olds. It’s scary how lacking in mathematical literacy even our best and brightest students are.

    1. How interesting to read the perspective of a high school teacher on this! Thanks, Mark. I hope that the Common Core will help children to think deeply about math and science so that by the time students get to you, these issues will no longer be happening.

      1. We are expected to implement the Common Core at the high school level, at the top of the staircase of complexity without the supporting foundation and without any real direction or guidance. I love the idea of the Common Core but am appalled at how poorly it is being implemented.

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