Common Core perplexes parents

Marcella Jones of the Ulster BOCES department of Instructional Services speaks to parents  during the English session (BOCES)

Marcella Jones of the Ulster BOCES department of Instructional Services speaks to parents
during the English session (BOCES)

Approximately 75 parents of K-8 students came to the high school on a rainy Monday evening hoping to get more information about Common Core.

The session began with a video created by the federal School Improvement Network which explained the reasons that 43 states have implemented the standards. The video stated that only 25 percent of high school graduates are college- and career-ready, and the aim of the new standards is to change that and prepare all students for “lifelong success.”


The information provided in this overview, however, did not answer the specific questions of most parents. Next came a series of smaller sessions in math and English presented by experts from Ulster BOCES.



Weird math

The most frequent question in the K-5 math breakout session concerned why basic arithmetic had suddenly become so complex. One mother to second and fourth graders asked why a simple problem like 8+9 now had to be solved using “doubles plus one.” Other parents in the standing-room-only crowd agreed. Another parent remarked, “If I did this at work, I’d be fired because it takes so long.”

Rhonda Darmstadt, the mother of a grade one student at Riccardi, said she viewed the workshop as a tool that would help her daughter succeed in school. “Whether I agree or disagree [with the Common Core], I need to be able to help my daughter,” Darmstadt said.

Ulster BOCES math content specialist Halle Kananack said the old way of memorizing the answers to these equations is only easy because we’ve been practicing for years. The new methods have built-in “teachable moments” that allow students to build a foundation for higher level thinking.



Individual learning styles

Implicit in much of the conversation about why math problems now had to be solved in a particular way was the question of individuality. One mother said there are many different ways to solve the same problem, and wondered why her children were being taught only one method. She called it “invading my child’s thinking,” and asked if it was because of the online testing schools would be implementing in the future.

Riccardi Principal Sue Osterhoudt said, “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Kananack said students should learn a variety of models as part of Common Core and not be wedded to one. When parents challenged that assertion, saying their children were expected to respond in a particular format, she explained that they do have to master certain models, and therefore would be expected to practice them in homework assignments.



Training and preparation

One parent asked whether, because of how quickly the standards were brought into schools, the teachers had been sufficiently trained. Marcella Jones, of Ulster BOCES, explained that there is training four times a year throughout the state. Those teachers who attend that training in Albany return to their home districts and train their fellow educators.

Kananack explained that this was a difficult shift for the teachers, too, who have to hold off on teaching the “algorithm,” first teaching students to concretely count and then visualize before memorizing facts.

“There is a real, genuine need to transform math education and that’s what the Common Core is meant to do,” said Kananack, who demonstrated several math problems to illustrate how they are solved and how parents can help their children understand and complete the problems.

Another parent asked whether it was worth training teachers in the Common Core methods, since these standards and curriculum might be done away with in the near future as past educational initiatives originating from above had been. Kananack said she thought that was unlikely.



How to help

A number of parents expressed frustration that they couldn’t help their young children with basic elementary math problems. One parent called it “infuriating” that even though he can easily come up with the solution to his elementary aged child’s homework, he couldn’t “show the work” the way it was asked for. Other parents called it “embarrassing.” Parents noted that often worksheets come home without instruction, and several said they rely on YouTube videos for explanation.

Osterhoudt said parents should voice such concerns directly to their children’s teachers. She acknowledged that the implementation of Common Core happened very quickly, and the vocabulary used in the assignments is a big shift.

Coordinator of Elementary Education Sue Gies said the event was, in part, a response to complaints from parents struggling to help their children with homework. She called the Common Core a “great document,” but acknowledged there was a “learning curve” for educators. Both she and Assistant Superintendent Larry Mautone said they would be open to hosting more events like these.

-Additional info provided by Ulster BOCES