Must we abandon our core mission to survive?

I have this mathphile teacher friend who would be very happy if the rest of us would please try a little harder to understand and appreciate math’s elegance and power. She is 100 percent down with the self-proclaimed purpose of the Common Core math standards, which is to ensure kids learn mathematical concepts in-depth. Students being taught math to the Common Core standards supposedly will not be able to get away with rote memorization — like I personally may or may not have done, barely.

I confess I have experienced some of the beauty of math that gets my crazy friend all excited. Our now-17-year-old daughter learned arithmetic at the Idaho Virtual Academy, a virtual public charter school, using the K12 curriculum. In those years I was the one mainly in charge of supervising her education, a/k/a the “learning coach.” We learning coaches worked with our children’s teachers who were more like expert consultants, rather than day-to-day guides.

We had many different teaching tools at our disposal which was very helpful to me, the English major who couldn’t readily explain why  you “carry” or “borrow.” Nowadays it’s called “regrouping” and if a child didn’t get it by, for instance, using physical blocks and rods, other approaches were explained and available. My student eventually was required to demonstrate the correct answer to an arithmetic problem, but she only had to show how she got her answer in a way that made sense to her.

The complaint many parents have with Common Core math homework is children need to demonstrate they have as much familiarity with the different ways around a math problem as their teachers. Supposedly, one parent vented his frustration thusly:

If you can’t see the picture, this is what it says. The typed problem reads, “Jack used the number line below to solve 427-316. Find his error. Then write a letter to Jack telling him what he did right, and what he should do to fix his mistake.”
Below this is a number line that starts at 427 and shows three leftward jumps worth 100 each. I take this to mean the 300 in 316. Then, we see six leftward jumps of one, which presumably represent the 6 in 316. Silly Jack got the wrong answer of 121, instead of the correct 111, because he forgot about the 10 in 316.
The engineer parent who helped with homework is having none of it. He’s all about efficient, correct results, not theoretical folderol. The simplest way to demonstrate the correct answer to 427-316 is by lining up the numbers in columns and subtracting. There isn’t even any borrowing — bonus!
Is it just me, or did you just hear a sigh from my mathphile friend too?
My first job was at a mom-and-pop drive through hamburger place that had a cash drawer, not a cash register, so I had to learn how to count back change. Counting change is a lot more like finding the difference between 427 and 316 using the number line than it is like lining numbers up in columns, which was of course how I had learned arithmetic. I sympathize with teaching the number line/counting change method. Once you get it, it’s intuitive and practical.
However, this elementary student (third grade? Fourth?) then was to thoroughly explain the process in writing which takes spelling, coherent sentence structure, and penmanship. Common Core homework leads to Common Core high stakes testing. There are different versions of the Common Core high stakes test, but they are all administered via computer. This means take penmanship off and add keyboarding to the list of what’s being tested which is, to recap: 1. many different ways of approaching arithmetic 2. spelling 3. sentence structure 4. keyboarding.
In the the third grade. Including boys. You’ve met a third grade boy, I presume?
It doesn’t stop there. Teachers and the schools themselves are judged according to the outcomes of the high stakes tests. No quarter is given for individual students’ talents, or lack of maturity, or personal progress over time. Results are judged according to what an average child should know at a specific age. A schools’ students better measure up, or else the school risks closure.
The Idaho Virtual Academy has been in high stakes testing purgatory. Our kids were in a “failing” school . . . and that was exactly where we wanted them. However, to stay accountable to the State of Idaho (as opposed to us the parents) our school administrators took away the beloved K12 liberal arts, Western civilization-based curriculum and replaced it with Common Core test prep programs and websites.
The Idaho Virtual Academy has hardly been alone in abandoning its core mission in order to survive. Moscow Charter School will drop its elementary Spanish-language immersion program next year to concentrate on keyboarding for its youngest students, in order to get its high stakes testing scores up.
If breaking a key tenet of a school’s charter is allowed in the name of raising high stakes test scores, then the charter school movement is dead. Public charter schools have been assimilated into the regular public school system Borg.
As for me and mine, we’re going to avoid the high-stakes testing by homeschooling math and language arts, but we’re sticking with Common Core math by using Khan Academy.

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