The man behind Common Core math

Hechinger’s Sarah Garland profiles Jason Zimba, The Man Behind Common Core Math for NPR.

Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Jason Zimba begins a math tutoring session for his two young daughters with the same ritual. Claire, 4, draws on a worksheet while Abigail, 7, pulls addition problems written on strips of paper out of an old Kleenex box decorated like a piggy bank.

If she gets the answer “lickety-split,” as her dad says, she can check it off. If she doesn’t, the problem goes back in the box, to try the following week.

“I would be sleeping in if I weren’t frustrated,” Zimba says of his Saturday-morning lessons, which he teaches in his pajamas. He feels the math instruction at Abigail’s public elementary school in Manhattan is subpar — even after the school switched to the Common Core State Standards.

And four years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, he spends his weekends trying to make up for what he considers the lackluster curriculum at his daughter’s school, and his weekdays battling the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the Common Core.

Zimba met David Coleman, who’d become the man behind Common Core English Language Arts, when they were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford.

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

In 1999, they started the Grow Network, which produced reports analyzing test results for districts, including New York City, and states, including California. McGraw-Hill eventually bought the business.

Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington, where Coleman’s mother was president. He started a “quirky math and parenting blog,” writes Garland.

In 2007, Coleman and Zimba wrote a paper for the Carnegie Foundation arguing for clarifying “vast and vague standards.” Two years later, they were picked to lead the standards-writing effort.

The backlash started in 2013, when states started using Core-aligned tests and gained force in 2014, writes Garland.

. . . a dad in North Carolina posted a convoluted “Common Core” question from his son’s second-grade math quiz on Facebook, along with a letter he’d written to the teacher. “I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronics Engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other high-math applications,” he wrote. “Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.”

Zimba and his colleagues agree it’s a bad problem. But they didn’t write it. Their standards “don’t include lesson plans, or teaching methods,” writes Garland.

They blame the implementation. Standards and tests aren’t enough, Zimba now believes. “I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough,” he says. “In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test.” Now, he says, “I think it’s curriculum.”

U.S. kids do more homework, learn less

 U.S. teens spend more time on homework, but learn less than students in other developed countries, according to the Programme of International Scholastic Asessment (PISA).

American 15-year-olds do about six hours of homework per week. In most countries, students who spend more time doing homework also score higher on the math exam, reports Libby Nelson on Vox. But, in the U.S., “doing more homework correlated with slightly lower scores.”

I wonder if math homework is different in the U.S. than math homework in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where math scores are high and doing more homework seems to pay off.

Are U.S. students more likely to exaggerate how much they actually study?

And why is the homework payoff so much lower in high-scoring Shanghai?

School stops $100 ‘homework buyout’

A California school canceled a “homework buyout” fundraiser — $100 for a week without homework — after parents complained. The money would have helped pay for classroom supplies.

App does the math

Scan your homework into PhotoMath, and let the app solve your problems, suggests Denver’s 7NEWS. “It gives you both the final answer and the step-by-step solution. The app supports basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, algebra, and most linear equations.”

There’s no need to type numbers and operations into a calculator.

Subtraction made complicated

One page in his daughter’s third-grade math book explains the “counting up” method of subtraction, writes Erick Erickson, editor in chief of It’s one of four methods taught.

The traditional method of subtracting, borrowing and carrying numbers, is derisively called the “Granny Method.” The new method makes no freaking sense to either my third grader or my wife.

We send our child to a Christian private school. We thought our child could escape this madness. But standardized tests, the SAT, and the ACT are all moving over to Common Core. So our child has to learn this insanity.

Parents and kids feel helpless, writes Erickson. And, in his wife’s case, homicidal.

Alternatives such as “counting up” are supposed to supplement traditional methods, not replace them, responds Andy Kiersz at Business Insider. Common Core’s fourth-grade standards say students should “fluently add and subtract multidigit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.”

The “counting up” method . . . captures some of the underlying aspects of subtraction and place value that allow borrowing and carrying to work.

. . . The student starts counting by ones from the smaller number up to the nearest multiple of 10. Then she counts by 10s to 100, then by hundreds to the first digit of the larger number, then takes the remaining two-digit part of the larger number. These are all just a different way of subtracting in different place values. Adding these intermediate steps together, the student gets her result.

The point of these alternative methods is to provide a different perspective on a problem, which is often useful in learning math at any level.

Ideally, these alternatives build students’ understanding of key concepts,” making it easier for them to work with the standard algorithms later,” writes Kiersz.

Ideally, perhaps.  What does it do in reality?

Teens are busy, stressed, exhausted

Too much schoolwork leaves teenagers stressed and exhausted writes Vicki Abeles in USA Today.

Since school started this month, my 15-year-old son, Zak, has been having trouble sleeping. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night, worrying if he’s finished everything on his to-do list.

Compared to many students in our San Francisco neighborhood, Zak has a “light” schedule. He goes to school, participates in jazz band and does his homework. By design, he’s not the classically overscheduled child.

And yet, Zak’s daily routine of school-band-homework still manages to eat up most of his day. When Saturday finally rolls around, he’s not the carefree teen I wish he could be. Instead, he’s anxious, calculating whether he has enough time to get together with friends in between weekend assignments.

Her anti-stress documentary, Race to Nowhere, which debuted five years ago, is airing on public television this week. Abeles is launching a social media campaign called Ban Busy.

Some high school students work very hard to get into selective colleges, which now require lots of AP courses and extracurriculars. What percentage of teens are on the high-stress track?

Parents can’t do their kids’ homework

Sixty percent of parents have trouble helping with their K-8 children’s homework, according to a new survey by the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL). That’s up from 49.1 percent in 2013. One third say they don’t understand the subject matter, while others don’t have the time or can’t persuade their kids to let them help.

I almost never helped my daughter with homework. I figured I’d already done elementary, middle and high school. It was her turn. And, apparently, they’ve invented more geometry since I was in school.

Poor kids need homework

Too much homework may be a problem for the children of educated, affluent parents, writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic. These kids start out ahead — enrichment starts in pregnancy — and attend excellent schools. Poor Students Need Homework, writes Pondiscio.

“For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool,” he writes. And it’s not as if homework is competing for time with violin, ballet, karate or Mandarin lessons.

The proper debate about homework – now and always – should not be “how much” but “what kind” and “what for?”  Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.

Independent reading is also important. here are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates. Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.

Karl Taro Greenfield’s attack on excess homework — My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me — is very, very popular on Atlantic‘s site.

Greenfeld’s children, who attend a school for “gifted and talented” students, are “already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes,” writes Pondiscio. They would do fine with 30 to 60 minutes of homework per night. But what’s right for his kids may be wrong for other people’s children.

A Chicago elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood has eliminated homework for children in kindergarten through second grade, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Children are supposed to “read for fun” at home.

Boy’s best friend

Patricia                                                           Polacco's photo.

Core problem: Mom can’t help with homework

“Beyond the emotional arguments, the philosophical arguments, and the crazy arguments — there are a lot of crazy arguments against Common Core — there is a very practical argument” that supporters can’t answer, writes Erick Erickson on RedState:  Moms (and Dads) cannot help their children with math homework.

The math does not make sense to the children or the parents, he writes. “Kids are taught multiple ways to add totals together, must still add the totals correctly, but then must explain their answers — often having to write essays for math problems.”

Common Core will be “the under the radar, sleeper issue of campaign 2014,” he predicts. People are very, very frustrated.

But who will they blame?