It finally happened tonight: neither Nick nor I could figure out how to do Ella’s math homework. We’ve heard about this exact circumstance, tales from friends and in the news stories we read about how the Common Core curriculum is being taught and tested in New York state, where the kids bring home work that contains language so foreign to both the parent and the child, bitter frustration boils to the surface… But we’d never truly seen it until this evening.
While it’s no secret that I am bad with The Math (see: Ella and Annie were supposed to be three years apart but they are two years apart instead; oopsie), I did used to be an elementary school teacher. I’ve been responsible for not only understanding but teaching math to second, fifth, and sixth-graders, and, if memory serves, I taught it just fine. Nick was a far better math student than I, and regularly uses math at work; he’s currently taking a Financial Reporting and Analysis course for his MBA and is nailing it. In other words, while we may not always be the brightest bulbs on the tree (although we do sparkle nicely), we should certainly be able to help our third-grader with her math homework.
Except here’s the first thing: this math is stupid.
Why in the world is it helpful to think of 9×4 as 5×4 + 4×4? Is that supposed to make it easier? Because it seems to me that just knowing that 9×4 = 36 is a lot more efficient than using algebra to solve straightforward multiplication problems.
Second, without instructions, it’s really difficult to know what the question is actually asking.
Here, for example, Ella thought that perhaps she was supposed to divide 36 into two equal groups and add them up. I said that sounded fine, but did she know what 36 divided by two was? Nope. So Nick suggested that perhaps she was supposed to re-phrase the algebraic equation written above – which is what Ella ultimately did – but, as you can see by my note, we have no idea if this is what she was supposed to do.
In addition (a pun!) to the problems being stupid and confusing, this homework sheet presented Ella with material she’d never encountered before – in this case, the distributive property – and she was completely stumped as to what to do.
I suggested that she “distribute” the numbers equally, drawing an array (New York state parents of elementary school kids – we should totally design a drinking game where we do a shot every time our kids bring home a worksheet with the word array on it. We’d be hammered, but the homework would be a lot more fun), but she turned me down. When I Googled the distributive property, I found myself staring at crazy algebraic properties that surely had nothing to do with this worksheet.
With no other options, I finally convinced Ella to use the time-honored method of approaching difficult homework: copying from somewhere else. In this case, I suggested that she copy the weirdo circle thing from the front side of the worksheet (which Ella informed me is a number bond); she reluctantly agreed.
So, see, it’s not that my kid’s not listening, nor that she’s stupid. She could tell me all about arrays (DRINK!) and number bonds, but having never been introduced to the words “distributive property” before, she was – understandably – confused.
And here’s the biggest rub for me: we couldn’t help her. I’m not saying that I wanted to do the worksheet for her (oh, hellz no), but I sure as heck would have liked to at least understood it so we could have helped her understand it for herself. Ella’s teacher has (wisely, I think) requested that our kiddos stop doing homework that they don’t understand before they become frustrated with it, in part so that they don’t reach burn-out level, and in part so that she can see just what they don’t understand and can make sure she teaches it in a way that reaches them. All of that is well and good – truly – but the unsaid reason for having our kids go to her when they don’t understand things is that the New York Common Core assessments (and the worksheets and homework “preparing” kids for the assessments) are designed in such a way that they must be taught just so, using exact language (often literally scripted), with details so precise, the only way to fully comprehend it is to have been in the classroom yourself.
Which seems to be in direct contrast with one of the supposed “key” components of a student’s academic achievements: support from parents (or guardians).
You can read study after study “proving” that one of the strongest bolsters of educational success is a solid school-home connection, and I would absolutely agree. I want to have a solid connection with Ella’s school, with her teacher, with what she’s doing in the classroom. But when she brings home work that makes absolutely no sense, that is baffling to all of us, we cannot help her, and we are essentially written out of the equation (another pun; squee!). And that is just bullshit.
Yep, I said it. It’s bullshit.
Like the many articles I’ve read before, I could tell you how, despite our best efforts, Ella’s sense of frustration did reach burn-out level tonight. How she felt dumb and inadequate and monumentally distressed. And it would be true, and it absolutely broke my heart. But being unable to help her through because we, as her parents, are kept in the dark by a vague (yet, paradoxically, exceedingly specific) curriculum, was what really put me over the edge.
I’ve read the Common Core standards. I think they, themselves, are pretty swell. I’ve got less good to say about the near-constant assessments and tests and “demonstrating (lack of) knowledge” that both Ella and Annie have undergone this year. I don’t even want to get into how asinine and maddening it is that Ella – who has never given two hoots before – is worried about her report card, because she knows that she will be graded on concepts that have not yet been introduced to her. That her teacher tells her it’s okay – expected, even – to receive low marks (because, after all, how many kiddos can do well on material they’ve never seen before?) has not made her feel any better.
No, this actually wasn’t staged; she’d thrown her pencil down with an angry flourish.
As her parent, I’d love to tell her that I couldn’t care less about how well she does on her report card, so long as she tries her hardest. And I have told her that – Nick and I both have, repeatedly. But, if we can’t even help her with her homework, I don’t know that we’ll be making much headway convincing her that her grades don’t concern us one bit.
I cannot say enough awesome stuff about teachers, nor praise their efforts loudly enough. I loves me some teachers. But parents are a really important part of all of this, and we’ve been effectively shut out of the process. It’s ridiculous, it’s crazy-making, and it’s not ultimately going to help our kids succeed.
Not cool, New York. Not cool at all.