The new Common Core math is giving some parents fits.

On Facebook and Twitter, they’re sharing a few choice problems that seem to illustrate how Common Core – a new set of learning standards that weigh critical thinking skills above rote memorization – is making math much more complicated than it needs to be. Like this one. And this one:


— Rachel Laing (@RachelLaing) January 22, 2014

I’ve got two kids in school, and wanted to know: Were they really being compelled to go on roundabout, nonsensical detours to solve basic math problems?

So I took a look at the practice test.

Think of yourself as a 9-year-old and look at this question, designed for fourth grade:

The two-eyed space creatures, three-eyed space creatures and four-eyed space creatures are having a contest to create a group with 24 total eyes.

a. How many two-eyed space creatures are needed to make a group with 24 total eyes?

b. How many three-eyed space creatures are needed to make a group with 24 total eyes?

c. How many four-eyed space creatures are needed to make a group with 24 total eyes?

d. Somebody told the five-eyed space creatures that they could not join the contest. Explain why five-eyed space creatures cannot make a group with 24 eyes.

According to the folks behind the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the test that will be used to measure how well students learn the curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards, this question “taps student understanding of factoring, divisibility and interpreting a remainder.”

The answers, as any 9-year-old, multi-eyed monster fan would should know, are:

a. 12

b. 8

c. 6

d. five-eyed aliens cannot make a group with 24 eyes because 5 is not a factor of 24 or because the groups of eyes can only be multiples of 5.

So, maybe parents are right to complain, but need to shift their target. The issue isn’t so much the content of the problems, but the fact that the math gods are messing with us yet again.

Many of today’s parents had “new math” foisted upon them, so what is this? New, new math? There seems to be an irrational desire every generation to upend the system. Proponents of the new math that was taught in the 1960s and ’70s thought students needed better preparation for science careers. We still think that STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) is all the rage today. But the new math that was rolled out for my generation only left me confused by abstract number theories in middle school.

My daughter’s principal is a former math teacher. He shared a story with a group of parents this week about his fifth-grade daughter. She was working on fractions in her math homework, and told her parents they wouldn’t be able to help because they hadn’t learned Common Core math when they went to school. Everyone laughed and got the point: Fractions are still fractions, and the important thing is that students learn the underlying math concepts, regardless of any new label.

According to Council of the Great City Schools, which wrote a roadmap for parents about Common Core, the idea is to teach real-world math concepts that children will use for the rest of their lives.

Let’s take a look at a higher-level problem from the practice test. This one is for grades 6-8:

Claire is filling bags with sand. All the bags are the same size. Each bag must weigh less than 50 pounds. One sand bag weighs 58 pounds, another sand bag weighs 41 pounds, and another sand bag weighs 53 pounds. Explain whether Claire can pour sand between sand bags so that the weight of each bag is less than 50 pounds.

The answer?

Since the mean is more than 50 pounds, it is not possible to move sand between bags so that each sandbag weighs no more than 50 pounds.

That seems pretty much straight out of the real world.

Here’s another problem, from the practice test for high school students.

A circle has its center at (6, 7) and goes through the point (1, 4). A second circle is tangent to the first circle at the point (1, 4) and has one-fourth the area.

What are the coordinates for the center of the second circle? Show your work or explain how you found your answer.

Answer: The slope between the center of the larger circle and the point (1, 4) is 3/5. Since the area of the smaller circle is one-fourth the area of the larger circle, then the radius of the smaller circle is half of the radius of the larger circle. The slope will be the same, but both distances will be half, so 3/5 becomes 1.5/2.5. So, the coordinates of the center of the smaller circle are (1 – 2.5, 4 – 1.5) = (-1.5, 2.5).

Um, yeah, I won’t be using that information in my real world, but then again, I’m a writer, not an engineer and I never really got the “new math.”

From what I’ve seen, some parents need to take a deep breath, and spend more time examining the actual standards and tests. There’s a lot that teachers and parents still don’t know about the rollout of Common Core, but I’m all for teaching strategies that my kids will be able to put to use, rather than theories that scare them off of math and ultimately out of STEM careers.

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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