By Temple A. Walkowiak

Engage parents with information about the Common Core that dispels the myths and helps to keep students interested.

Math_1506_Walkowiak_Web“I can’t help my child with this ‘new’ math!”

“That’s not the way I learned it!”

“What is this stuff?”

Have you heard these comments from parents at your school or in your community? These comments likely have been made time and again since the introduction of mathematics standards over 20 years ago. But there’s been a spike in such comments since the implementation of the Common Core math standards. Regardless of whether the comments are fueled by social media or traditional media, educators need to be armed with strategies for helping parents understand, navigate, and embrace the Common Core’s mathematics content and practices.

Three strategies and accompanying action steps help school leaders and teachers to be proactive rather than reactive when addressing parent concerns about the Common Core math standards. While the examples in this article are embedded in elementary mathematics, the strategies and action steps apply to all K-12 settings. They are presented in Table 1 and further explained below.

Walkowiak_CC_Table1

Strategy #1: Educate parents on the truths of the Common Core.

While this may seem a no-brainer, the first step in addressing parent concerns is to enlighten them on what the Common Core math standards are really about. Recently, I noticed Figure 1 appear multiple times on social media, and I even saw it used in a local TV news segment on the Common Core. While I don’t know the original source of this image, I definitely experienced frustration when I heard news anchors, friends, and family alike comment on the ridiculousness of this “Common Core math” or “the new way” in the image. The contrary is actually true. This is just math, not “Common Core math,” and in fact, from a mathematical standpoint, “the new way” approach on the image demonstrates a deeper level of mathematical understanding than “the old-fashioned way” at the top of the image.

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So, why was there so much uproar with thousands of people sharing this image on Facebook and Twitter? The top approach is the way that most of us learned subtraction, likely subtracting the ones digits and then the tens digits. The bottom approach is a “counting up” strategy from 12 to 32. The student adds 3 to 12 to get to 15, 5 to 15 to get to 20, 10 to 20 to get to 30 and finally 2 to 30 to get to 32. The student knows what has been added is actually the difference between these two numbers. The student should understand that subtraction can be represented by the distance between two numbers on a number line.

Figure 2 shows the corresponding number line representation for “the new way.” The three action steps, described below, focus on giving parents specific, accurate information intended to eliminate their use of negative comments about the Common Core. This is important because negative comments, when spoken in the company of their children, can have negative implications on the children’s attitudes towards mathematics.

Walkowiak_CC_Fig2

Action step #1. Tell parents how Common Core math progresses across grade levels and that these progressions are based on research about how children learn math. Standards documents are not necessarily new to parents; all states had mathematics standards (and some still have their own) before the Common Core. However, parents need to understand how the Common Core math standards were written with specific attention to the progressions of same-topic standards across grade levels. While teaching parents how the standards progress for every mathematical topic is not necessary, educators should show them how the standards progress for a particular topic as a way of giving them a sense of the thinking invested in the development of the standards. By allocating a small amount of time at a school-sponsored event, such as Back to School Night or Math Night, for giving examples of how the Common Core math standards build upon knowledge developed in earlier grades, educators are arming parents with information that makes the Common Core more attractive. You also may post a blurb with similar information and explanation on your web site. (See Table 2 for an example of how the Common Core builds on the concept of place value from kindergarten through 2nd grade.) Keep explanations simple and emphasize how the standards were carefully developed.

Two resources can help prepare information for parents about standards progressions and were used in the development of Table 2. So called “progressions documents,” which outline how the content progresses across grade levels, have been developed. These documents are available at: http://ime.math.arizona.edu/progressions/. Additionally, learning progressions information focusing on K-8 standards are at https://www.turnonccmath.net/. This online tool is a hexagon map that shows how content and student understanding progress within topics and across grade levels.

Walkowiak_CC_Table2

Action step #2. Inform parents about the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMPs). Many parents are not aware of the Common Core’s practice standards (see Table 3). These practices are strongly connected to the process standards set out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000) upon which most states based at least part of their standards before the Common Core. However, processes typically took a back-burner position to the content. Since Common Core development, attention to practice standards has been explicit, likely because such practices have become part of high-stakes assessments. Parents need to understand the importance of these practices beyond assessment. Students skilled at these practices likely will be at an advantage for hiring. Employers want employees who can engage in problem solving and provide justification for solutions. Therefore, educating parents on the practices and their importance is an important and critical step.

Walkowiak_CC_Table3

Action step #3. Provide parents with URLs that give information about the Common Core from leading experts in mathematics education. Parents need guidance about where they can go for reliable information beyond what you provide them. A mathematics education group at Stanford University, led by Jo Boaler, has been explicitly addressing the truths of mathematics teaching, learning, and the Common Core for parents and teachers. Boaler released a video in June 2014 that focuses on understanding how the Common Core can be helpful in changing mathematics teaching and learning in the U.S. The URL for the video is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOOW0hQgVPQ. Boaler also has founded a nonprofit called YouCubed with the primary aim of providing K-12 math resources for parents and educators. The parent section of the nonprofit’s web site can be found at http://youcubed.org/parents/

Strategy #2: Take advantage of the power of videos posted on your school/classroom web site and/or social media news feed.

Modern technology for accessing information can be a double-edged sword. With information literally at their fingertips, parents can develop very negative ideas about the Common Core and receive “help” from online sources of varying quality. On the other hand, since we can give parents information so easily through our school/classroom web sites and social media news feeds, we have the potential to transform parents’ perceptions and understandings of the Common Core. Some of the swirling negativity is fueled by parents’ lack of confidence in their own abilities to help their children in math. They feel that the way their children are learning math is so different than their own experiences. Short video clips can be a powerful way to help parents develop a better understanding of the Common Core’s math standards and the content and practices.

Action step #1. Create short “help” videos on mathematics content. While there are existing videos on the web through such web sites as the Khan Academy, these videos may or may not be focused on mathematical understanding. I know at least four teachers in a local school district who have been creating their own videos using iPad apps that are posted on their web sites for parents to access. Imagine a video in which the teacher explains subtraction like the “new way” in Figure 1 and why it is important for students to be able to think of subtraction as the difference between two numbers on a number line. Or, imagine a video in which the teacher explains why it is important to think flexibly about a problem like 29 x 12. The video includes explanation about 29 x 12 — 29 groups of 12 — having the same value as 20 groups of 12 plus 9 groups of 12. And, the video may show an alternative way to think about 29 x 12 as 30 groups of 12 minus 1 group of 12.

Action step #2. Record and share videos of your students engaged in the mathematical practices. Many parents are apprehensive about math teaching and learning looking different than the traditional instruction they experienced where the teacher shares steps on how to perform a specific type of math problem and then students practice those steps on similar problems for classwork and homework. In traditional instruction the focus tends to be on helping students understand the procedures without attention to students’ conceptual understanding.

The Common Core focuses on building students’ conceptual understanding of the mathematics before teaching the procedures. Building conceptual understanding involves engaging in the Mathematical Practices, discussed earlier in this article and presented in Table 3. One example is to record a video of students engaged in explanation and justification of their mathematical ideas. Then share the video with parents via a secure web site or a private social media group. By seeing their children engaged in mathematical practices, parents are more likely to believe in the premises of the Common Core.

Strategy #3: Engage parents and community to build a math culture.

A critical step in parent buy-in is building a culture where mathematics is valued. Mathematics has been a discipline that people love or despise. We’ve all heard someone say, “I’m not a math person.” Why is this statement accepted as humor in our culture when it’s not socially acceptable to say the same thing about reading? As educators, we can collectively change the larger culture around mathematics by starting small at our own schools.

Action step #1. Publish a statement about the school’s beliefs about and value for mathematics on the school web site and in the student handbook. Let it be known to parents, students, and the community that mathematics is an important part of school culture. One way to reach nearly every parent is to publish a statement on the school web site and in the student handbook. When I was a 6th-grade teacher, I heard many parents say, “He gets ‘it’ from me. I’m not good at math so that’s why he is not good at math.” I even heard teachers who taught other subjects make negative statements about mathematics in front of students. Based on Carol Dweck’s (2006) research on mindset, we now know the dangers of imposing a “fixed mindset” on students. Dweck has found that people with a fixed mindset — those who believe their talents and abilities are not malleable — are less likely to reach potential. On the other hand, people are more likely to reach success if they have a “growth mindset,” believing that talents and abilities can be developed and improved over time. As schools and teachers, we need to embrace the growth mindset about math, i.e., anyone can be good in math if they work hard. We need to communicate this belief to all stakeholders.

Action step #2. Invite parents and community members to be involved in problem solving. I know teachers at a local school who developed a “Video Problem of the Week” at their school. They invited community members and parents to video record a mathematical problem that related to their work. The problems were broadcast as part of the school news. Students became energized by the challenge of solving the problems from various occupations (e.g., carpenter, doctor, engineer, plumber), and, in turn, members of the entire school community, including parents, were talking about math with interest and enthusiasm.

Conclusion

As the debate continues about the Common Core, we must educate parents. Using the strategies and actions described in this article we can likely affect parents’ understandings and perceptions. Hopefully, a ripple effect will help more people understand the background and goals of the Common Core’s math standards. Ultimately, we hope for a different, more positive perception of mathematics in the U.S. than the current perception as a procedurally driven discipline that many loathe.

REFERENCES

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

TEMPLE A. WALKOWIAK (temple_walkowiak@ncsu.edu) is an assistant professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.