The Common Core is one of the most fiercely debated topics in American education today. Because the United States’ education system lags behind many OECD countries in reading and math, the Common Core standards were introduced to redefine the requirements of fluency in math and language arts. Whatever controversies may have arisen since it was introduced, it appears that this transformation of educational standards is here to stay.


A national survey in 2016 found that outside of the social media debate, teachers are fully aware of what’s in the common core and are teaching it appropriately. As the bridge between the material and students, it’s vital that teachers understand what is expected in their classroom. This aspect of the Common Core appears to be in working order.


The debate continues, of course, and being aware of what’s at hand requires more nuance than simply being “for” or “against” Common Core. In order to make an informed decision, it’s illustrative to consider a side by side example of Common Core vs. the old method of teaching math.


Math: Before and After the Common Core

Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison in middle school math.  


Here is a pre-Common Core middle school math problem:


“Donna buys 40 apples at 35 cents each. She eats 2 apples and sells the rest for 45 cents each. How much money does she make?”


Here is a Common Core middle school math problem:


“Donna buys some apples at 35 cents each. She eats 2 apples and sells the rest for 45 cents each. She makes $4.40. How many apples did she buy?


Notice the difference? Prior to the common core, students were expected to understand multi-step arithmetic. First, you establish how much money she lost in purchasing the apples, then you figure out how much she made with the apples that she didn’t eat. Then you subtract the first number from the second.


It would look like this:


  1. $0.35 x 40 = $14.00
  2. 40 – 2 = 38 apples
  3. 38 x $0.45 = $17.10
  4. $17.10 – $14.00 = $3.10 profit


With the Common Core question, expectations have shifted. You’re not told how many apples she started with. You know her ultimate profit (after eating two) and you know how much she paid for the original number of apples. As such, you have to create an algebraic equation in order to determine how many apples she bought originally.


To do this, you set apples equal to x.  Then, you put it in the form:


  1. $4.40 = $0.45(x-2) – $0.35(x)
  2. $4.40 = $0.45(x-2) – $0.35(x)
  3. $4.40 = $0.10x-$0.90
  4. $5.30 = $0.10x
  5. 53 = x (number of apples)


The Common Core problem is certainly more challenging. It holds up to the standards of rigor and the “deep dive” philosophy, asking students to grapple with unknowns while simultaneously factoring in the loss of two apples along the way. Prior to the common core, the problem was more straightforward, less conceptual.


This conceptual tack is the heart of Common Core. It’s goal is for students to not engage in rote memorization, but to engage with the computations and attain a fundamental understanding of why calculations and formulas are the way they are. The ultimate goal is for a more complete math education, not just one that scratches the surface.


Parents and Teachers: Bridging the Gap

A frequently expressed concern with Common Core is the language and methods used in its materials. Understanding the English Common Core standards can be difficult, but the idea of needing to reshape the entire approach to familiar math concepts makes some parents uncomfortable.


The truth is that these concerns were misguided. The shift from rote memorization to comprehensive understanding has in fact been a beneficial one for students. While it required some transition time, the truth is that children are now learning ways of computing that provide a better picture of the mathematical process. Moving into the future, children are now going to be learning in ways that consistently build upon each other, rather than separating math concepts into discrete silos.


The new methods understandably gave rise to some consternation from parents, with some even reportedly enrolling in their own math classes just to be able to help their children with theirs. While the new framework may have seemed overly complex, the truth is that its only major offense was being new. To perform the transformation expected in national math education, Common Core by necessity had to adjust and alter the delivery of many concepts.


Searching for a Conclusion

It is true that newer math problems derived from Common Core look much different than older ones. The lack of outreach to parents could be looked at as a fundamental mistake by educators, but this does not mean that the new standards are faulty. Students will be best served by better communication, and a patient and calm approach to the changes being undertaken.


America needs to find a way to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of reading and math, that much has not been considered up for debate. The Common Core may not be a panacea for all that ails American math education, but for things to improve, new approaches are required. The next step is for parents and educators to come together and realize they have the same goal: a quality education for America’s children.