April 26, 2015
One of the major focuses for improving instruction comes in Common Core math. Our district is in the midst of adopting new teaching methodologies for our math teachers aligned to meet the demands of the Eight Standards for Mathematical Practices and the new standards in each grade. In spite of the politics that sometimes exists around the Common Core, I believe that if one actually examines the practices and standards, there is nothing unusual or out of line. What you will see is that the expectations are high. I embrace those high standards for our students.
Compared to the rest of the world, adults and students in the United States are not very good at math. I believe one of the reasons for that is that we are often taught that there is one way and one way only to solve a problem, and either you understand it or you don’t. That is just not true. There are many ways to think about solving even the simplest of math problems. We are often taught how to solve a problem using a proven method. We can get the answer, but the meaning can escape us. Even if you can solve a math problem, it does not mean you understand it.
I have always liked math. In elementary school, Rose Ann Hansen and I regularly competed to finish first in the class in all of the 100-question multiplication quizzes. She was a fierce competitor. I can still recite the quadratic equation, though I have absolutely no idea how use it. My wife and I sometimes compete at estimating square roots to the nearest hundredth. We are pretty close, but the difference is, she truly understands math. I was even a math major for a while in college, including successfully taking all the calculus classes. I gave up after my linear algebra class, where I could solve the problems correctly, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! I was able to solve the problem the way I was told to solve the problem, but unable to understand anything about what I had accomplished other than getting the right answer. I was doing math, but not understanding math. Finishing first, memorizing, and following procedural directions have their place, but they have little to do with understanding math. If we are going to compete internationally, far more of us have to truly understand math. That’s where the Common Core Standards come in: they are far more about understanding the math.
Common Core math seeks to help students always understand “the math behind the math” and how to apply it in real life situations by spending more time on concepts than our previous standards did. When these higher expectations are applied in the classroom, students will see problems that can look very different from what we parents saw in school. It will look different when are trying to help students go beyond memorization, and towards understanding. Here is a 3-minute video describing what these problems may look like, and why we are trying to teach students that there are multiple ways to approach a complex math problem.
If you want more information, there are many informational resources at achieve.org.
My bottom line: The Common Core Standards in mathematics can help us to be a nation that is far better at truly understanding math. I am 100% in.
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District