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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. This was a very interesting blog and comment section. When teachers get together there are always plenty of ideas flowing. I would like to make some comments from a private school background. I taught 3rd grade at a private school for 8 years. When I first started, I was astounded by the curriculum requirements, especially the math curriculum. I didn’t see anyway that my students could learn all these things. I hadn’t taught anything nearly as complicated in my 3rd grade student teaching assignment. But the students totally surprised me. Because we had a stepped system that began in K, students built upon their skills and were highly successful. Public school teachers asked us how we did it.
    Here, I think, is the main reason. We, unlike the public schools, were not bound by testing. We do test every even year class to show progress. But the main emphasis is not on the testing. Teachers don’t worry all that much how the students do on the tests. Our students consistantly do well. It seems to me that all the teachers in the public schools worry about is the tests. That doesn’t give them much time to teach their students. Learning is so much more than tests. I really wish we would not place so much emphasis on tests.
    The other thing I would like to say is that it is important for students to learn basic math facts. There seems to be a movement away from this. Students who know their facts, are usually less frustrated with higher order problems. Math takes less time for them to finish.
    Maybe our main problem as a country is that we have placed too much power over education in the hands of the federal government. Cookie cutter doesn’t work for teaching. We need to put more decision making in the hands of the people actively working with the students.

  2. I think the common core curriculum has a lot of valuable ideas but our students need gradual exposure. The problems you pointed out were used by our district in 4th grade before the common core was implemented. They were ready due to the type of math program we use from K and on.

  3. I can’t help but notice something else on Ralphie’s teacher’s chalkboard: music. I find the most appalling reality that intense focus on CCSS and testing brings is the inability on the teacher’s part to spend time helping students to learn and to connect and build references to other academic areas that are just as important reading and math to the education of a whole child. You are right the CCSS is rigorous and HARD. My frustration is to balance the need for rigor with the need to educate the whole child. Why does learning have to be HARD… so hard that two academic areas consume the entirety of learning time? Why can it not be joyful and unfold in a natural unforced way? I’ve never met a kid who didn’t want to learn. As a music teacher (K-6)and classroom teacher (grades 1-3) of 28 years I perceive a loss of focus on the child and what it means to be a child, resulting in somewhat of a loss of wonder and curiosity on the part of the child and stifling to creative teaching. I feel I have been forced to focus on only the CCSS and what is on the test. I feel it has narrowed our curriculum not enriched it. I feel the scrutiny of the testing, the high stakes nature of the testing, for example tying it into teacher evaluation and labeling schools succeeding or failing, has caused the focus of instruction to narrow to only literacy and numeracy and has squeezed out a great deal of other legitimate academic areas crucial to the development of the whole child. It often even encourages the focus to be on what children can’t do as opposed to what the children can do. So to kind of pull this jumble of thoughts together: I feel although the CCSS and testing are a great GUIDE and help to set high standards , the focus should be the education of a child. I teach children not the CCSS. I’d like to remember that means not excluding joyful learning and not to exclude what is NOT on the test and the CCSS to the detriment of the child.

  4. How am I just now seeing this fantastic article? Angela, once again you have nailed it! My district has been easing into CCSS and it is now up to my grade – 2 nd. My wee ones are very bright, but come on, expecting seven and eight year olds to do some of the things I am teaching makes me crazy. Have any of the suits who make these standards ever heard of Piaget? Have children changed developmentally? Isn’t concrete learning still needed before we move on to abstract? Grrrr. Sadly, I do not see a move away from this since you write the article back in January. The only thing I see that has changed is my state’s governor has said we will not use PARCC to assess. Florida will make up their own test. Oh brother! Who knows what our kids are in for?

  5. I’m so glad I found this posting, I have a first grader in a Southern California school district which just adopted the Common Core math program this year (maybe last year?) and I am so very frustrated with the “teachings” in it. There are similar math problems in the first grade book that you printed above. My son can read some of the words, not all, but he is definitely not comprehending the directions without a detailed explanation from me (one that takes me a bit how to figure out how to explain). The pictures, the “blocks”, “draw the number sentence”, addends, algebra…it’s all a little too confusing and, I hate to admit, advanced for 6 year old minds. When they have the basics down, sure, introduce more complex and difficult problem solving, but kids need basics first.

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