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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 hit the nail on the head, Angela! I agree that a strength of CC is depth vs. breadth. Is CC developmentally best practices? I’m not sure. Yes, most kids CAN meet the standards, but do they NEED to in order to be successful adults? Our education system is failing our students, not teachers. For example in my state, LA, instead of having CC implemented in PK-1, then adding a grade each year, they decided that grades 2-12 had to implement CC AND most of our previous state standards until ’14-15. Our texts and resources no longer align, but are we allowed to buy new? of course not! When are children allowed to color and cut (fine motor skills) without teachers pressured to make EVERYTHING rigorous? When are they allowed to just listen to and enjoy a book? When are they allowed to just practice? The Hierarchy of Learning has a knowledge and comprehension level for a reason…how can our kids ever make higher order connections if they don’t haven’t had a chance to internalize the foundations? Please don’t misunderstand, I am all for teaching higher order thinking skills…I withdrew my kids from a parochial school and enrolled them where I teach (public) because they weren’t getting HOT at all at the original school. But I do feel there has to be a balance.

  2. I am not an educator, but I do enjoy helping my Grand-Daughter with her studies. Keeli is 6 and started First grade this year at the age of five. I have been worried also at the level of math problems she has to solve. Four digit addition and subtraction for a 6 year old first grader is a bit much if you ask me. She has a easy time with single and double digits, but as they increase she does struggle. Instead of complaining to the School Board I introduced her to Khan Acadmey. We sit and work on these problems together both on screen and written form. She still struggles a bit , but it helps. I do however believe this level of math is over the top and I would like to see a system where each student can progress at their own inherent pace. I had a problem with this as a child, being kept with everyone else in my class, I become bored and retreated within myself, never studing and ultimately caring less about my grades. I do not wish this for my Grand-Daughter! Anyway, just thought I would add my two-cents, and give credit to Khan for their effort!

    1. I make my entire chemistry course available on YouTube (youtube.com/markrosengarten) and people all over the world use it. I’ve gotten thank you notes from all corners of the planet. Know who doesn’t use it? My own students. For whatever reason my own students refuse to make use of the resources that are available to them, coming up with all manner of excuses to not watch them. It’s very frustrating.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this post. I could not agree more with your thoughts. I teach Civics and Economics to 12 and 13 year olds. Unlike math, where students have been working on similar processes, Civics and Economics are foreign and very abstract/lofty thoughts. We have rigorous state testing each spring that are written and implemented by a multi-national corporation that uses multi-syllabic words that my students do not understand. My question is why can’t these tests questions, like the ones you used in your example, use everyday regular English?

    1. Cori, maybe I haven’t understood your concern… But it seems to me that children need to be taught these “big and lofty” words. And it must happen for several reasons. One is if children are not taught these words, then they won’t be able to understand our leaders when they speak on these issues. To pick up your reference to math. My child participates in a parents-led math circle with other 4-6 year olds. The kids have no problem with big abstract words such as “line of symmetry”, “gradient”, “reflection”, “rotation”, “segment of a straight line”, “circumference”, etc as long as parents a) introduce a word, b) use it in the games during our meetings, c) encourage children to use these words.

      Using big words like this teaches children precision (draw a simple shape, ask a child to a) draw a shape that is “same as” the original one and b) symmetrical to the original one – you will get two different results; using the proper term removes ambiguity). Also, using big and abstract words makes kids feel more capable and more confident. They can express themselves and their ideas more clearly. And they are more eager to participate in serious discussions when they don’t have to struggle to understand and be understood.

      1. Hi- no the big and lofty things are the concepts in government and economics- how the president appoints cabinet members and then Congress approves them. Or how the Federal Reserve Bank can slow or speed the economy using the money supply and interest rates. Then when they get to the year end test, the students see words that most adults don’t use much less middle school students. I find it frustrating when I know the students know the information but are tested using “rigorous” wording that confuses the students. *sigh*

        1. But what’s wrong with learning proper words? I mean, most of us normally don’t go around using the words such as “quadrilateral” or “proprietary” or “antebellum”. However, if we don’t know these words or the concepts they describe, how can we claim to be well-educated? Or should we, just because those are not everyday words most adults use, completely replace them with “a shape with four sides”, “relating to an owner” and “existing before a particular war”. Well, that’s ok, I s’pose, except each of the “big words” embodies a concept that is far deeper than the alternative “simpler” description. There are cases when big words are used inappropriately (i.e. legalese), but if the words are used correctly in appropriate context, in a scholarly way, then not teaching them to children might result in impoverishing children’s English and limiting their opportunity to express themselves succinctly and eloquently.

          1. I guess my thought on this is that it’s one thing to expose children to complex vocabulary and concepts. It’s another thing to make those things the foundation of the curriculum so that students are tested on and held accountable for mastering them. Maybe some of the kindergartners in your group can use the term gradient with their parents during the math circle, but they shouldn’t be subjected to a multiple choice test on the term or be required to have demonstrated mastery of it before moving on to first grade. Whatever is in the Common Core *must* be mastered by all students, so I think we need to think carefully about what’s included.

          2. Angela, all the pre-k and K-age kids in our group can use these words. It’s not because they are so exceptional. It’s because we keep using these words ourselves. Then again, this is not a school group. So we have a much better control over the what, where and how of introducing concepts to the kids. Testing children so early is a failing strategy, as I think we all agree. It does more harm than good. Even in later grades, testing the way it’s done, is terribly counterproductive and harms the learning process. When I went to school, we didn’t have standardized testing (it wasn’t in the US). It was a very different system, based on essays, oral exams, and complex multi-step problems. Then, as I was finishing school, the ed system tried to copy the American model of multiple choice, etc. That was a big mistake, according to the university professors who commented on how high school grads now know and understand much less. I, as a student, enjoyed the change though because it made test prep a LOT less difficult. The new format wasn’t about comprehension, but about memorization (I do have a very good memory). It seems the entire system of standardized testing is just wrong.

  4. As a parent I appreciate your comments. In our districts current spiral math curriculum , students don’t stay on any topic long enough to master them. Overbrook sent home a note to tell parents not to help with math homework because they were doing it the wrong way. That process is not transparent enough for parents with good math skills to help is ridiculous.

    1. This is interesting that a school asks parents “not to help with math homework because parents do it the wrong way”. There is usually more than one way to solve any given math problem. How do you calculate a tip on your restaurant bill? I asked 3 people and I got three different algorithms, each resulting in the same correct answer. It’s actually good to show more than one way to do something because it leads to good questions such as “how come all these solutions work?”, “what’s in common in all those solutions”, “which one is more efficient”, etc. The problem is that parents are oftentimes too eager to give a complete solution to a child (“here, add 3 here, then carry 1 over here, then divide, then…” – you get the picture). So kids are not given an opportunity to really think about a problem and invent their own ways of solving it. Instead, they learn to be helpless “I don’t know how to do this. Mom, please help!” But the same can be said for schools.

      1. Agreed, Cori and Yelana. This is a sad situation that Elf describes. I know that sometimes parents use different strategies than the school and that confuses their children, but there’s a huge emphasis in the Common Core on using multiple problem solving strategies. I think it’s great if parents show their kids different ways of arriving at the same answer.

    2. I don’t like our math series because it has no time for reteaching. I have to do a lesson a day and the administrator wants to know what lesson we’re on every two weeks. Besides that, 3rd graders are learning some things that have, traditionally, been 6th and 7th grade material. I have been tutoring kids before school to help them out.

  5. Wonderful article, Angela! Thank you for saying what so many of us want to say. The CC is not improving education, in my opinion. It is just layering more requirements on students and teachers. I feel weighted down with everything that is coming down from our Iowa state education department. Almost every school is on the reading watch list because the assessments are way above some children’s understanding and because the state’s idea of a “baseline” score.

    There are so many factors today, too, that affect learning in the classrooms. It bothers me that everyone blames the teachers. We want to help students, we want them to grow, we want them to learn, but we’re cramming things at kids in a fast-paced way.

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