This article is the first of a two-part series looking at the challenges faced by teachers and parents in teaching kids math in the Common Core era. Dr. Mahovsky spoke with several teachers and observed the actual teaching of math in a K-12 school in her exploration of this topic. The articles describe what she saw and what we can learn about teaching math in the Common Core era.
Part I: The Challenge of Teaching Math in the Common Core Era for Parents and Teachers
It is apparent that the Common Core Standards are not going anywhere fast. Although there has been an unprecedented amount of pushback, these standards undoubtedly contribute to mathematics instruction in all grades. Districts are moving towards math curricula that support the Common Core such as Bridges, Math Expressions, and enVision Math, but parents seem more frustrated than ever with the change. Even so, it depends on if teachers are actually teaching mathematics as the standards outline or adhere to following a mathematics curriculum that mirrors the central focus of the standards. Here are the standards for mathematical practice outlined by the Common Core Standards:
Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Model with mathematics.
Use appropriate tools strategically.
Attend to precision.
Look for and make use of structure.
Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
From a parental perspective, these standards relate to 21stCentury skills and seem ideal. Nonetheless, from a teacher perspective, these standards are challenging to adhere to even if given a curriculum to follow. One teacher openly admitted:
During my first year of teaching, my teammates and I taught our students computations. We thought having our students simply solve a calculation correctly was true understanding of mathematics. Teaching just computations to rote memory was easy to teach and felt rewarding .
Teachers are now being asked to instruct students in ways that were neither taught during preservice training nor learned as a student themselves in early grades . Therefore, this lack of scholarly ability sometimes makes mathematics teachers uninterested in considering new ideas or instructional strategies . I refer to this as a procedural mindset. Parents find comfort in helping their students complete problems the “old fashioned way.” The irony is that teachers feel the same way about teaching the concepts.
The Common Core Standards for Mathematics are arduous and put high demands on the teachers; as a result, teaching becomes more routine than authentic where students are learning through exercise-oriented lessons versus inquiry-based lessons . As Kevin, a teacher, admits, “I failed my students when they solved story problems or any problem that did not have an obvious equation to solve. My students were unsuccessful at these problems because the problems were too complex for them to identify the process to the solution”.
Teaching mathematics conceptually requires attending to student’s questions, anticipating obstacles, capitalizing on opportunities, making connections, and providing enrichment beyond the immediate tasks . In essence, scripts, tests, and textbooks cannot continue to take a teacher’s place in classroom instruction, but a teacher must apply freedom and inventiveness that the teaching profession demands . Kevin eventually realized,
Learning to let go of both the ideology that students need repeated practice of problems and the control of my classroom was the biggest challenge in creating a classroom that focused on problem solving skills. I had to learn to let my students fail on problems repeatedly to the point of frustration to allow them an opportunity to improve on their problem solving skills. Just allowing them to struggle was not enough; I had to anticipate their struggles and create guiding questions that would support them in solving the problem.
The key is to find balance where experiences of students leads to growth. According to the Department of Education, if mathematical ideas are taught using real-world situations, then students will improve their performance on assessments that involve similar real-world problems. Educators need to prepare students for this world which requires teachers to take on interdisciplinary issues, projects and problem situations that present themselves during mathematics instruction daily .
 Kevin Junod, “Letting Go”, Spring 2017
 L. Heitin, “Elementary Math Teacher Rethink Pedagogy under the Common Core” 2014
 S. Beckmann, “From the Common Core to a Community of All Mathematics Teachers” 2010
 T. Rowland & R. Zazkis, “Contingency in the Mathematics Classroom: Opportunities Taken and Opportunities Missed” 2013
 S. Vecellio, “How Shall I Teach Thee? An Uncommon Pedagogy for the Common Core” 2013