Common Core Math Is Confusing

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As Common Core Math has been implemented in schools, it has left many parents scratching their heads. But, is it all bad? Life as MOM contributor JessieLeigh shares her thoughts on Common Core Math.

Common Core Math Is Confusing |

Over the last couple of years, a majority of states and their corresponding districts have made the decision to align their curricula with “common core standards.” As word of this spread, so did panic and the result was a terrifying mix of legitimate concerns and exaggerated claims.

No matter where you stand on the whole “common core debate”– and, believe me, I am not judging you either way– one thing seems to be consistently true for most parents trying to navigate this new world:

Common core math is confusing.

It doesn’t matter if math was your favorite subject growing up or you just barely got by. It doesn’t matter if you were a straight A student or considered a C to be a huge success. I honestly don’t think I’ve met a parent yet who looks at the new math programming and says, “Ah ha! Yeah, sure. I remember that.” Because we don’t. It’s different. And it’s confusing.

Confusing things frustrate us. We scratch our heads and wonder, “Seriously? Why am I making a number line here? We’re adding two digit numbers. Stack and carry, baby, stack and carry. That gets the job done.” When we have a tried and true technique upon which we’ve relied for ages, it can be maddening to be asked to do what is, essentially, more work.

I get that. Trust me when I tell you– I get that. I loved math growing up and I find myself getting irritated at some of the new techniques that are now the norm. They seem tedious and sometimes convoluted and, well, frustrating.

So why are we doing it? What, at the end of the day, is the point of this? Politicians and administrators throw things out there about “raising global thinkers” and “encouraging STEM careers” and “competing with other nations.” There are a lot of catch-phrases leaking their way through media and, often, these just make us shake our heads some more.

Instead of spouting lines like that, I’d like to share what I’ve witnessed as a parent and a substitute teacher of the K – 5 set.

Many, many children are successful learning to do math the way you and I were taught it. They can absolutely learn to stack and carry or borrow and apply it to the average word problem. And that’s great!

However, in any given class, there are also several children for whom that method just doesn’t make sense. These are the kids who, back in the day, were pretty much just labelled “bad at math” and it was left at that. Those students muddled through in order to graduate and, to this day, probably self-identify as “not good at math.” This is just how it was and we all accepted it as inevitable.

Here’s the big thing I want you to know– for those children? For the little group who struggles with traditional math? These strategies can provide an “ah ha!” moment they would otherwise never experience. Being shown how to draw a number line, sketch out ten-sticks, or apply a hundreds chart can open doors for the frustrated student.

And that is a beautiful to see.

Common Core Math Is Confusing | Life as MOM

Still, is it fair to ask all these other students to learn these new crazy methods? I mean, sure, it might help a few, but why should the other ten to fifteen have to jump through these hoops if they can solve it the old-fashioned way?

Well, to answer that, I will simply point out that that’s really nothing new.

Back when we were in school, there were kids who could solve the problems in their heads. Perhaps you were one of them. And, while your teacher may have told you that was great, I’d be willing to bet that you were also asked to “show your work.” Maybe, like me, you would jot down the answer and then backtrack to create the actual work on paper. You may have rolled your eyes or felt like it was overkill– but you did it, because that was the expectation.

That’s what kids are still doing. There are absolutely children who prefer to solve problems the way we were taught. It’s okay if they do it that way… as long as they can also prove their work by applying one of the strategies they’ve learned.

When all is said and done, will these kids have to draw number lines for the rest of their lives in order to add 23 + 68? Of course not. The day will come when, as long as they can accurately solve it, it doesn’t matter. If you think about it, it was the same for us. Is anyone yelling at you to show your work when you solve a problem these days? Nope. That was just one rung on the ladder and you’ve passed it.


Common core math is confusing.

For us.

But it IS opening doors for some students. I see children every day who are able to solve problems because they’ve discovered a strategy that actually makes sense to them– a strategy we never had because the majority of us got it and that was considered good enough.

Please believe me when I tell you that I feel your frustration. I have rolled my eyes and let out sighs and turned to my husband to say, “really????”

But I do want people to know that common core math is not all bad… and the reason has nothing at all to do with politicians or businessmen. It had to do with those kids who can finally say, “I understand how to solve these math problems.”

Related Articles:

– A mother of three, including a 24 week preemie, JessieLeigh is a determined advocate for even the tiniest of babies. She can be found celebrating life’s (sometimes unexpected) miracles and blessings at Parenting Miracles.

You can read all of Jessie Leigh’s posts for Life as MOM here.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe you can get great meals on the table -- and still keep that pretty smile on your face.

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  1. Yes, yes, yes! I was one of those kids labeled “bad at math” and it wasn’t in college until I realized I WASN’T bad at math (I got an A in calculus, after all), I simply didn’t understand math the way teacher’s were teaching it. My brain is conceptual and stacking and carrying didn’t conceptually make sense. Number lines make sense. I’m probably the ONLY parent I know who LIKES common core math but I do like it.

    • Tracy says

      Oh my gosh Kate, you aren’t the only one who likes the new common core math. I like it too! This is the way I add in my head….make a ten, make a ten…..

      I went to a common core math workshop presented by our school district. They explained the concepts that our kids were learning and the number lines and how common core fractions would work. I wasn’t the only parent leaving the classrooms saying out loud, “man, if I had learned math that way, I might have had a chance!” I so get the “new” math cause that’s how my brain works too!

    • I loved reading your comments, Kate and Tracy, because it’s just exactly what I’ve witnessed in the classroom! I’m one for whom “stack and carry” worked just fine, but it’s beautifully eye-opening to see these alternate methods open doors for children whose minds simply process things in a different– NOT inferior– way. πŸ™‚

      • Cathie says

        So what happens if the common core doesnt make snese to those who know the old way? This makes no sense to me. Too many tables too many lines too many numbers. How are kids that only know this way going to take the sat? Takes three times as long to solve the problem! Ive got an child going into the public school system and oh boy are the educators gonna have a hard timeβ€”My kid is going to learn the way i learned -fast and efficient none of this nonsense.
        Ps im a graphic designer and i work in programming. The above example made zero sense to me.

  2. Janet says

    Amen. My children are being taught using Everyday Mathematics, which is a comprehensive grade school mathematics program aimed at the Common Core State Standards produced by the University of Chicago. The teachers seem to recognize that for many kids the older methods are easier and quicker, so they tend to teach those along side. They also use computer programs such as Math Facts in a Flash to encourage memorization of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, fractions, decimals, and percentages tables (online version of flashcards). One size does not fit all. My attitude is, learning more than one method cannot hurt and might help. Reinforcement tends to be a good strategy in teaching any concept.

    • “One size does not fit all” <– that's it, exactly. Janet. And I do agree that memorization of basic math facts is still both important and encouraged in most, if not all, classrooms.

  3. Sherrie Roderick says

    I just had this discussion with my daughter’s teacher at our Parent-Teacher conference. She was so excited to share with me how wonderful this is. When I told her I could just look at the problem and know the answer she reminded me that I should not expect the little ones to be able to do this. We are very excited. that she is looking forward to helping our children. I gives parents peace when they know that their child’s teacher loves them and wants the best for them. Just like we do.

    • When parents and teachers work as allies, it’s a wonderful thing to see, Sherrie. It sounds like your daughter is in a great place! πŸ™‚

  4. Christine A says

    Amen! Great perspective! Thanks for sharing it!

  5. HeatherC says

    I am a fourth grade math teacher in a public school in Ohio. Common Core…the good the bad and the ugly. Everyone has their opinion, but I think many negative opinions come from frustration in not fully understanding CCS. Think of it like this…when you plan a trip, you examine many different aspects of the trip….the possible transportation modes, the various routes in which to get you there…all ultimately will lead you to the same destination, but you choose the one that is the best fit for you. In order to choose the one that is truly your best fit, it is important to understand all the aspects of the other routes. Now, think of a math problem, Think of the problem above…924-672. There are many ways to solve this problem that will result in the correct answer. By students learning different routes to that answer, they choose the one that is their best fit at where they are with their mathematical understanding. For example, teaching the traditional algorithm may be efficient for an adult, but for a child that does not have a full understanding of number sense this can lead to making errors that the child will not realize because he does not have the number sense to judge his answer as reasonable. Counting back on a number line may solidify the understanding that subtraction is a reduction, a concept that many children struggle to understand…that by subtracting you are going back. Another strategy may fit this child better….counting UP on a number line…think of it, this is what store clerks do when they make change. Both of these reinforce number sense and benchmark numbers which make students stronger in mental calculations so that fewer errors occur when they do finally make the jump to the traditional algorithm. Hope this helps for those that are struggling with Common Core Math.

    • Thanks so much for weighing in, Heather! One of my favorite things when I teach a math lesson to, say, 2nd or 3rd graders, is to ask for different volunteers to show how they solved it. There are so many appropriate and valid methods and it’s eye-opening to see how different methods help different children grasp the underlying concepts. Your examples are excellent– thanks again!

  6. As a college science professor, I am so excited about common core because it is getting my children (and their classmates!) to think about more complex math at an earlier age in a way that shows them what it means rather than just getting the answer. We tend to forget that math is a language that describes the way things relate to each other and the common core does this very, very well.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Lea! I do wonder what impact this new method will have on our children’s abilities to better understand more complex math down the road. It’ll be interesting to see!

  7. Crystal says

    I am so glad the new methods are helpful for some people, but I think for others, it makes them hate math. My first grader HATES math. She can do all the problems in her head, and she doesn’t understand what work really needs to be shown, because 25+23=48, in her head trying to show work over-complicates things. It makes me sad that my daughter hates math so much when she is so good at it. Teachers need to have the flexibility to allow kids to do what works for them. I think all kids need to learn how to show their work, but why cant they be taught different methods and choose the one(or two, or three) that work for them, instead of being forced to comply with these new methods that may not make sense in their brain?

    • I am so sorry for your first grader’s experience, Crystal. I do think that many, many teachers strive to allow children to find the methods that best work for them while also expecting them to demonstrate a certain level of understanding of different approaches. Eventually, we all encounter problems that can no longer be solved in our heads, so I do think it’s important to learn how to express that on paper, too. I can definitely understand why you would feel frustrated. Have you spoken with the teacher about your concerns?

  8. AlysonRR says

    The new methods made no sense to me when I first saw them, but the more I looked at the problem-solving techniques, the more I used them myself. I’ve never been good at “in-my-head” math because I’ve tried to do it with stacking and carrying and it can be hard to keep track of the result when you do it one digit at a time. The grouping method in addition/subtraction has improved my in-my-head computational ability by leaps and bounds.

    What I like about Common Core is that there are state-to-state alignments of curriculum, which means that students who move (and we’re so much more mobile than we used to be!) don’t suffer because math is different in their new state. Oh, and it exposed me to a better (for me) way to calculate, so – hurray!

    • I think exposing new ways and methods is a great thing, Alyson! And you make a good point– eventually, stacking and carrying too many digits gets confusing, even for those who are pretty gifted at “head math.”

    • My engineer husband says many of the examples he’s seen of “what??? this common core math is ridiculous!!!” are exactly how he works those problems in his head. He’s not a fan of Common Core in general, but he would be in favor of using some of those teaching methods to help kids get a better conceptual understanding of what’s going on in math.

      For myself, on the other hand, who has a brain that is NOT math-inclined, the above example would have been incredibly confusing. I know that I would have seen, “He subtracted [600, 20, 50]” and immediately gotten upset. “Why 20? Why not 30? How do I know which number to pick?” or else I would have tried using the same numbers (600, 20, 50) in a different problem and been confused when I didn’t get the right answer. I’m confident that I would have understood it after awhile (and maybe it would be better if I HAD gone through the mental gymnastics to understand it!), but it would have taken special explaining to get me to that point. I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it in a group setting, or if I had, I would have forgotten when I got home. (My mom basically re-taught me every single Algebra lesson I had because we thought alike and I understood her. πŸ˜‰ )

      Anyway, all that to say, YES to different explanations to help different kids all understand the same concept! Thanks for sharing the positive side of this. πŸ™‚

  9. I grew up in small, poor, Parochial schools in the 70’s, and I’m pretty sure Sister Patricia (God rest her soul) is turning in her grave! Cater to students? Never! I sure is a different time in Education from when I was learning, to be sure.

    • Different from my experience too, Liz! It’s still odd and confusing to me at times, but I’m glad I’ve been able to see the value, too. πŸ™‚

  10. Samantha says

    Sorry to be the Common Core naysayer, but I don’t like it and I’m glad it’s not the law where I live. There is so much added gobble-de-gook added in to math now- I had to teach my kids the “old-fashioned way” just to know they knew how to divide or subtract properly. I’m glad it works for some kids who think outside the box, but for a majority of kids common core just causes frustration and added work. In a day and age when clerks can’t make change without looking at a cash register screen, I think we need more basics.

    • No need to apologize for being a naysayer! I meant what I wrote– I judge no one for their opinions about the new curricula that have been adopted. I am equally appalled at the lack of ability to make change that I’ve seen over the years, though I must point out that it’s unlikely those clerks were taught math using the new programs we’re now seeing in elementary schools… so that could be good news! Our school does indeed align its curriculum with Common Core standards and it includes a huge number of manipulatives, including fake money that they must handle and understand. I’m hopeful that could actually help turn the tide. πŸ™‚

  11. Kat W. says

    I, to, am one of the Common Core naysayers, but I’m not at all sorry about it. The way the perspective in the post above is presented, seems like it’s saying it’s a good thing that we’re throwing out tried and true methods that work for the majority, in favor of convoluted, time consuming, and confusing ways for a few who these methods supposedly benefit. This is a socialistic model of engineering life for everyone because of a few–and it usually doesn’t work in the long term. At best, five kids are finally “getting it” (maybe), and 10 kids are suffering, struggling, and getting marked down, even though they fully understand what they’re doing. Likely, even of those five, if they didn’t understand traditional math, they won’t understand CC, either. IMO, it’s shared misery, and it’s wrong to do that to successful kids, to turn math upside down. And how does it make MORE sense!?

    My daughter’s 10th grade teacher doesn’t even like it, and he’s a newly minted teacher. He should’ve learned all the most recent up-to-date methods of doing math. But he’s got to mark students wrong for coming up with the answer the way they’ve been learning all their lives, because they didn’t use the confusing, convoluted CC method. I’m sure it pains him to do it as much as it pains his students to be marked wrong for something they’re doing right. You have 10th graders having to relearn a lifetime’s worth of math all over again, students who were getting A’s and who were on track to graduate early, failing now.

    Instead of ruining what worked for most, why not make CC available for the select few who need it, and leave everyone else alone, if it were indeed about the few who don’t get it? This is a rhetorical question. It’s a social and political agenda, plain and simple, which seeks to bring everyone to the same level, and punishes ability and excellence.

    • Sharon says

      I want to thank Kat for her eloquent response. I read this post earlier, and was actually quite shocked at so many positive responses. I am in full agreement that there is a political social agenda. I just am curious if anyone in another state voted on this.

    • I appreciate you sharing your perspective, Kat, and I truly do understand the concerns you’re voicing. I know it was rhetorical and I will not attempt to change your opinion– you’re totally entitled to it, after all! But I will say that, having taught the subject and having been in the classroom, it has not been my experience that the majority are suffering. Some of that may well depend of the curriculum chosen by the district and the teaching style of the instructor, but I have been pleasantly surprised to see multiple perspectives/methods explored and accepted and lively discussions about the actual WHYS of math.

  12. mrs.p says

    Where my kids went to school some of teachers dont get it. My oldest was in high school she was struggling with her math and I help her. She had the problems with the right but her process was wrong. So they end up wrong. So I went to the teacher. I said ” why are the probblem wrong this is the way YOU taught me.” He said “back then that was right but now its wrong.” Really she can do the problem got the answer right. But because she didnt do there process she got it wrong. I don’t care how you look at 2+2 will always equal 4. We end up pulling my youngest daughter from our local school district. She online. With her math class I sit with her and we do the problmes together and compare. She usually has to explain to me how to do it. I am all old school.

  13. Kelly says

    Thank you for sharing this perspective! This is a refreshing post in a world where all teachers (like me!) see is people slamming the subjects and methods that they are told to teach. (Yup, the teachers don’t get a choice in how to reach this, it’s decided way above them!)

    Yes, it IS different. Yes, it IS more challenging. But don’t we want better for our kids then we had? We give them better foods, safer transportation, better technology… Why not teach them math in a better way?

    My only complaint here is in calling it “Common Core” math. It wasn’t invented to meet the higher standards. Truth is, textbook companies and school systems started teaching this newer way years before Common Core was adopted (I saw Everyday Mathematics in classrooms in 2006; CCSS was adopted in 2010). It just happens to be the convenient scapegoat that people are using to pull a political card.

    • You’re absolutely correct, Kelly! I tried to allude to that at the very beginning of the post where I referred to it as “curricula adhering to common core standards.” <– That is a much more accurate description, but a bit clunky to use repeatedly! Since the majority of parents around seem to refer to it as the "new, Common Core math", I figured that'd be the most recognizable label, if not the most accurate. πŸ™‚

  14. Thank you so much for this! So many people complain about this new math, but I see how quickly my kids are doing mental math using these methods. There’s also problems that I reach for algebra to solve, but my fourth grader can solve. Common core is not as bad as some make it out to be.

  15. Jenise says

    I have been researching math curriculum a LOT lately and really thought hard about this. First of all, I don’t have an issue with giving students multiple methods in their toolbox. I want our children to understand math concepts and not just “plug and chug” problems.

    However, I feel that many traditional math programs do teach the concepts with manipulatives or other visuals, and they get a bad rap for not teaching the whys. Conceptual seems to be the new buzzword that explains everything wrong with traditional math and everything right with new math. A good teacher uses visual aids and explains the whys with whatever curriculum tool they are using, as you explained. For example, I took out place value blocks to teach the concept of carrying and borrowing to my son yesterday with a traditional math program. We discussed why some call it regrouping, and he preferred the term carrying and borrowing rather than regrouping because it helped him differentiate subtraction vs. addition and made more sense of the action we are doing.

    Whatever methods used to explain math is fine to me so long as the traditional algorithms are actually taught too. Some curricula do not teach them or minimize them, and that is a disservice to their students. It’s great to understand the why of math, but as you get older, expediency is valued the most, especially in STEM careers. You shouldn’t still be doing lattice multiplication in college, imo. Also, if a child prefers the traditional algorithm, they should be allowed to use that method in their work, especially if they do understand the concepts. Let them run with it. Keeping them in multiple methods when they have grasped the concepts and internalized them and making them explain every detail is holding them back, in my opinion. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that I can ask a child to explain his answer and know if he understands or not without frustrating him on every homework assignment to write out how he arrived to the answer.

    The goal of the early years should not be to delve into too many abstract topics. This is not developmentally appropriate until later on. My other beef with newer math methods is that many do not focus enough on fact memorization. I am not saying it is always fun, but k-4 is the time to know your math facts. If you don’t know them, this will hold you back in upper math if you understand all the concepts but can’t do simple multiplication efficiently. It’s a balance, but imo, fact memorization time should not be sacrificed for anything else. We introduce calculators way too early in school now, and this contributes to high schoolers not knowing how to figure out change. While common core is new, new math isn’t. Look back to the mental math skills of those 100 years ago with an 8th grade education, and it’s painfully obvious who spent more time knowing their math facts.

    Some of the concepts are great. I was never taught to add to ten even though I do it mentally. But counting off a paper that has the right answer because they used a different path than what was asked is just as wrong as only teaching the methods without the concepts. In all, there is a balance. Some curricula are implementing it better than others.

    • Kadee says

      Part of my problem with it is the method of implementation. My 2nd grader will be ok because he is learning this way of doing math from the get go. However, my sixth grader was dropped into it and is expected to know all the methods and terms that he wasn’t being taught all along. Also, concepts are being taught at an earlier age, so it is assumed that he was taught something in 4th grade when he wasn’t, because the old way didn’t teach it until 6th grade. That puts him behind. My other problem is having an answer marked wrong because it wasn’t solved in the common core way. This has happened multiple times to my son. He arrives at the correct answer, but because he didn’t get there in the “right” way, he gets it wrong, which is very confusing to him. And to me, for that matter.

  16. I totally agree with you. I love math, and it has always come easy for me. My kids usually pick up on it pretty fast as well, and they have gotten frustrated at times with having to learn the different techniques. But, I think that it is important for us, as parents, to not show our frustrations with the techniques just because it’s not the way we have always done it.
    When I really started looking at some of the techniques, I realized that I was doing some of these things already in my head, I just didn’t realize it. For example, there are many times when I’m adding or subtracting and I will round numbers and then make the adjustments to get to the actual numbers in the problem just as in the example you show above! Now if I was doing with pencil and paper, no way would I do it like that.
    In college I tutored student athletes from a well-known university and encountered all levels of students. I had to adjust the techniques to the students. Unfortunately, in a regular classroom setting most teachers don’t have the time to do this one-on-one. Thus the curriculum for now, common core. My solution…we are in a public school, but I teach my children too.

  17. Jenise says

    I totally agree Kadee. I often say that Common Core was well-intentioned, but it has been poorly implemented in most places.

  18. kcmama says

    I’ve cried along with my ninth grade daughter with this convoluted way of learning math but I understand that this is the way the wind is blowing. I’ve lost hope that she will ever be interested in any jobs that require fair amounts of math anymore because now she HATES the subject. Previously she did well in math and was considering civil engineering, programming and a few other careers that take advanced knowledge of math. Friends and relatives in those fields encouraged her and mentioned she understood the concepts. She used to quickly grasp the concepts and was regularly able to do things in her head and even did math problems for fun at one time. No more. She is struggling with maintaining a C in her math class even though she routinely has the correct answer; even with daily “help” from the teacher and her peers with better grades. She’s even gone online to teach herself how to show work to get credit. The group she’s in where they’re supposed to teach each other has trouble with the multiplication tables, never mind trying to explain to each other more difficult problems.

    In an example that may make sense to how it felt for me and feels to her to those who have no trouble with math to be told it really doesn’t matter how you learn to solve a problem, just that there are different ways to get the same answer, pls indulge my admittedly imperfect example that nevertheless illustrates frustration. I named my daughter Kathryn. Now imagine if she was told in school it is spelled Catherine, Katherine, Kathrine, Kathryn, Cathryn, Kathryne, etc. because they all can be pronounced the same. She then picks and chooses a different spelling every time she signs her name and all the educators applaud because she understands the concept that her name can be spelled in different ways. Chaos ensues. THAT is what it feels like to be told there are different ways to solve a problem too early to understand the abstract nuances.

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