Common Core, part 3: Ms. Lamoreaux takes exception

I thought I was done with the Common Core for a while, but my friend J-Mag sent me a link to this video of Karen Lamoreaux addressing the Arkansas state board of education. Ms. Lamoreaux is very articulate and presents some valid concerns about the Common Core; I suggest you take four minutes to watch it and then read my thoughts below.

I respect Ms. Lamoreaux’s opinion– there is a lot of new stuff in the Core and we should always be skeptical of big changes, particularly when they cost us some local control– but I’d like to focus my comments on the one example she shares. First, here are the relevant fourth grade standards from the Core:

CCSS.Math.Content.4.OA.A.2 Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison.

CCSS.Math.Content.4.OA.A.3 Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

Taken out of context, the problem Ms. Lamoreaux cited looks pretty weird because it’s so different from the way most of us learned to crunch numbers. My goodness, they’re drawing pictures! Why aren’t they learning real math?

In the interest of an informed discussion, here is some context. In those international math tests we keep hearing about, the small island nation of Singapore has been at or near the top of the international heap in math for some time now.

Besides the fact that it’s always a good idea to study the people who are beating you, Singapore offers the added advantage (for us) of having a very similar demographic to most American states: they speak English at school, they have a large immigrant population that does not necessarily speak English at home, they have an underserved indigenous population, etc. Yet they consistently beat not only the United States but also Japan, South Korea, and other countries we hear about in the fear segment of the news.

So a while back, some Americans decided it might be worthwhile to study how Singapore teaches math and see if their methods could work in the United States. They went to watch math lessons in Singapore and… yeah, the kids were drawing a lot of pictures in math class. The Singapore method relies heavily on drawing problems out in detail (including the circles and lines Ms. Lamoreaux complains about), which is why a typical Singapore math lesson will only do about two problems in an hour when studying a new operation. You can read a summary of the method here.

Using a method very similar to what Ms. Lamoreaux is complaining about (I think; I would have to watch some actual lessons at her kids’ school to be sure), a pilot program for the American version of Singapore math raised test scores for an inner-city school in Los Angeles from the 35th percentile (compared to the rest of the United States) to the 65th percentile in two years. I was one of the teachers in that pilot program, and I was blown away by the results. This was not just some test-prep parlor trick: the kids were doing the problems correctly, but they were also able to explain how and why their methods worked. Even more important, the kids were far more able to apply their learning to new situations than kids trained only in conventional methods. Although I am no longer a full time teacher, I still use those same methods (yes, drawing pictures) to coach elementary mathletes in grades 4-6 in La Canada, California. My mathletes (yes, that’s a word) consistently pummel other students in Los Angeles county with these methods: they won first place the last two years in a row at a local competition. So those weird pictures, if used properly, not only turn below-average students into above-average mathematicians, but also help above-average students perform WAY above average.

Please note that the Singapore method does NOT replace rote memorization of the things kids need to memorize; in fact great emphasis is placed on memorization of basic addition/subtraction facts in the primary grades, times tables in grades 3-5, etc. What the kids don’t do in Singapore Math is endless repetition of arithmetical algorithms, which has been shown to not be very helpful for most students. Like other teachers using these methods, I have found that when I take the time to really walk the kids through a few problems (yes, drawing circles and lines), the kids retain and apply what they learn far better and longer than if we just repeat an algorithm forty times.

Nor does the Singapore method replace conventional arithmetical operations; rather, it supports the traditional methods by helping kids to understand WHY we carry the 1, regroup here, etc. so we don’t need to keep reteaching the same tricks. When the kids are ready, the pictures get dropped and the kids use the conventional methods for crunching numbers because it’s much faster that way. The end result is kids who calculate with speed, accuracy, confidence, and understanding. I know it looks weird, but it really does work better than anything else I’ve seen. I reckon this is why, when the Common Core standards for math were being drafted, elements of the Singapore approach were included.

I have not been to any classroom in Arkansas, so I cannot speak to how the Core standards are being implemented there. Maybe the teacher is just making the kids draw pictures because she was told this is how we do it now? If that’s the case, then Ms. Lamoreaux is right to be upset. If the teacher thinks this new approach means the kids don’t also need to learn the conventional way to crunch numbers, then that teacher needs some immediate intervention. Even if everything is being done correctly, I would still question the wisdom of dropping these new methods on kids in fourth grade precisely because it is so different from what the kids are used to; the pilot program I helped with began in grades K-1 only and added a grade level each year for that reason.

I respect Ms. Lamoreaux’s concerns, but based on her presentation above I think someone (either Ms. Lamoreaux, the teacher, or maybe both) is misinformed about the Common Core and how it is intended to be implemented. As I’ve mentioned before, no educational reform (including the Common Core) will work unless the students and parents are kept informed about WHY the changes are being made.

Again with the disclaimer: Griffin Education Solutions has no official position on anything except that learning should be fun; opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and are based on my experience from 18 years of full-time teaching in grades K-5, 12 years as a dad and volunteer at a public school, and as a continuing mathletics coach and educational writer/performer. If your opinion differs from mine, I am eager to hear from you.