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Mastering Math Shouldn’t Be Optional

I had lunch with your kid’s math teacher’s boss last week. What was on the plates doesn’t matter, but what was on the menu is very important.

The Nassau County Association of Mathematics Supervisors hosted Jill Diniz, curriculum manager and lead writer for the New York State Education Department’s Common Core Mathematics Curriculum Project. Her employer is Washington, D.C.-based Common Core, Inc. Diniz, who lives in Vero Beach, Fla., came to Nassau to explain how to implement the Common Core math standards in our local schools.

Right up front, she made it clear that the Common Core approach is very different from what we have been doing.

“Parents won’t be able to help the kids,” she said. They don’t have the appropriate math background. And she was talking about elementary school.

New York’s new Common Core standards are based on what’s called “Singapore Math,” a system worked out by the government of Singapore in the 1980s. By focusing on a narrow range of topics and going into them deeply, students progress quickly and are great at problem-solving, reasoning and articulating how they came to an answer, supporters say. For Singapore, it has meant some the world’s highest scores on standardized tests.

Getting there, however, wasn’t easy. Even this city-state, perhaps the most organized place on our planet, faced “five to six years of chaos” when implementing the new system, Diniz said.

Diniz peppered her talk with phrases such as “research shows.” And that’s encouraging. After all, much of the Common Core curriculum isn’t based on research, and most of what our kids are now required to learn in various subjects is more dreamed up than backed up. Which is what has many of us critical of the standards. So does the constant barrage of standardized tests that accompany the Common Core. As does the belief that a new curriculum and testing regime is the silver-bullet of American education.

Diniz’s talk and PowerPoint reminded me of my elementary school days. The Soviet Union’s Sputnik scared the math and science bejeezus out of America, and suddenly, we ’60s kids were thrust into a world of “New Math.” We didn’t focus so much on standard adding and subtracting as problem-solving and reasoning. My parents couldn’t help me with it, either. To this day, I am good at math puzzles and explaining how I got an answer. But I still don’t have the multiplication tables memorized. (My parents could have helped me with that.) It is often said that many kids trained in Singapore Math have the same skills and deficits I do.

Unfortunately, since my long-ago childhood, our schools have been through many “reforms,” most notably the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race To The Top, and such sophisticated math has taken a back seat until recently. In fact, we have become a nation of people who believe they are “good at math” (a minority) or “bad at math” (the majority), with the “bad at math” crowd convinced that it’s an innate talent, not a skill that can be learned and honed.

Saddest of all is that we have gotten to this point where what is taught in our local schools is determined by people far from our kids and communities. While much of what’s imposed on our schools might be good, it might not. Wiggle-room? I don’t see a lot. In math, for instance, the state’s Common Core standards have “modules” that are basically a calendar of what will be covered in each lesson.

One teacher at the lunch said that her elementary students were not fast learners, and that it took three days to cover lessons that the module had as one-day projects. So rather than try to cover the whole curriculum, she focuses only on the aspects that will be on the state’s standardized tests.

Something tells me that when the numbers come in, this teacher’s students will look a lot better at math than they really are. And, unfortunately, the appearance of progress is good enough in New York State.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it