Parents try their hand at Common Core math

January 25, 2015

Parents attend math night at Alice Fong Yu Elementary School in San Francisco.

Brandy Frakes, an elementary school teacher at the Aspire University Charter School in Modesto, is tackling one of the greatest challenges facing educators: building support among bewildered parents for the Common Core standards being implemented in thousands of California classrooms.

As teachers are discovering, a necessary first step is helping parents understand what the standards consist of, and how they are concretely shaping how and what their children are learning.

Understanding the Common Core approach to math instruction has been especially challenging for parents, Frakes said. A frequent question she gets from parents is why teaching math based on Common Core standards being implemented in California and 42 other states is a better approach than how their children have been taught in the past.

To answer that, she and one of her fellow teachers organized a parents’ math night last fall focused on Common Core at the Aspire campus in Modesto. She had parents sit together in groups and work on the same math problems their children grapple with each day.

Common Core supporters say that getting buy-in from parents is essential if the standards are going to have the impact they were intended to have.

“We all want students to be successful and part of that involves parents understanding and engaging in what happens in the classroom,” said Patty Scripter, vice president of education for the California State PTA.

In several states there is significant opposition to the Common Core, but the opposite is the case in California. A spring 2014 Public Policy Institute of California poll showed that nearly three quarters of parents support the Common Core. But the survey also revealed a knowledge gap. Four out of 10 parents said that they had not received any information on the Common Core, and 16 percent said they had received information, but they needed more.

It is not as if there is a shortage of information about the Common Core for interested parents. In fact, parents do have access to myriad online resources developed by school districts and any number of other organizations. Here are some examples:

National organizations are also offering parent-friendly resources, including the “parent roadmaps” to the Common Core produced by the Council for Great City Schools.

But teachers like Frakes and others around the state feel there is no substitute for having parents experience Common Core math firsthand. Doing so shows parents how Common Core math instruction places an emphasis on getting children to solve problems on their own, rather than relying on a teacher to supply the answer. Students are also expected to be able to explain how they came up with their answers – and to realize that there are often multiple ways to get there.

Piedmont Middle School parents attend Common Core math night.

A recent math night led by representatives of the Alameda County Office of Education at Piedmont Middle School drew about 70 parents in this affluent school in the hills abutting the Oakland Unified School District. The parents sat in three different classrooms for 30 minutes each, working in groups to solve samples of problems from 6th-  through 8th-grade curriculums, similar to the problems their kids tackle daily.

In one group, parents took on a math problem intended to illustrate the concept of “proportional relationships,” which are part of the 8th grade Common Core standards. Parents were given a sheet of paper with a problem that began this way: “Brandon and Madison use different triangles to determine the slope of the line shown below.” Parents were asked to solve the same kind of problem their children will have to solve in the 8th grade – in the space of 15 minutes.

Check out page 6 of this Common Core workbook to see the math problem that Piedmont parents were asked to solve.

For a Khan Academy online lesson on how to use triangles to determine the slope of a line, go here.

Charles Robinson, a parent of a 7th grader, would have liked to have gotten more concrete tools from the evening session to help his son, who he said has struggled with math problems like the one he and other parents had grappled with that night. But Robinson said the session helped convince him that as both teachers and students get accustomed to the Common Core standards, math instruction “will be better in the long run” than in the past.

On the other side of the bay, in San Francisco’s Sunset District, Lily Lei, a parent of a 4th grader and a 5th grader at Alice Fong Yu Elementary School, was one of roughly 60 parents who showed up on a weeknight for a Common Core math lesson and pizza in the school’s multipurpose room.

Presenters, including former classroom teachers from the San Francisco Unified School District, had parents work out a 4th-grade math problem involving fractions. Parents were asked to consider what happens when a pitcher strikes out 7 out of 18 batters. Was that closer to striking out 1/3 or 1/2 of the batters? Instead of the presenters showing them how to solve the problem, they were encouraged to come up with solutions within their own group, just as their children are asked to do in a typical Common Core math lesson. In those groups, they drew pie charts and number lines and used other visual tools to help figure out the answer. 

Parents also got tips for how to help their children with their math homework. Lei thought the session was helpful in showing her ways to prompt her kids to break down questions in their math homework. She also said she felt positive about the overall objective of Common Core math to develop critical thinking skills in students.

But Lei said she had concerns that Common Core requires children to solve math problems in multiple ways, a task that her children find difficult to do on their own. She worried that her elementary-age children wouldn’t be able to do their math homework independently, without guidance and prompting from her. “That’s why I question if it’s age appropriate,” she said, referring to what the Common Core expects of younger children.

To the California State PTA’s Scripter, it’s not surprising that parents are struggling to understand the Common Core. “We are asking them to wrap their heads around tons of information,” she said.

Modesto teacher Frakes said that now when parents question the benefits of the Common Core, she has a straightforward response. “I invite them to come into my class and see it for themselves,” she said.


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