Coffee Talk – “New Math”, Discuss


The idea for this post originated from an email discussing experiences with the “new math”.It evolved into this collaborative effort; a discussion between parents (and a Lead Learner as well) from two different states sharing their perspective on the new math method adopted by the Common Core Standards. We welcome your opinion – please share your thoughts in replies.


Tony Sinanis – Parent of a 4th grade student and Lead Learner

On June 2, 2010 the landscape of public education was changed dramatically when the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics for grades kindergarten through 12 were officially released to the nation in their completed form. These proposed national standards, which came as a result of the 2004 report Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts, were developed because both employers and colleges were demanding more of high school graduates than in the past and because these same graduates were lacking in the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed. The Common Core State Standards were developed as an opportunity to create a clear and consistent vision and understanding of what students are expected to learn in school so that educators and families know what they need to do to support their students. Furthermore, the CCSS are intended to address the “educational crisis” that exists in our country and is reflected in our inability to compete in the current landscape of the global economy. Our children are reportedly lacking the literacy, mathematical and critical thinking skills necessary to compete with learners from other countries and secure jobs that are relevant in today’s world. These standards and the aforementioned crisis have led to the “new math” unfolding in classroom across this country.

New math, as it has been coined on social media, by educators and families, is extremely concerning to me as an educator and lead learner. You see, I was educated by the “old math” way and I turned out fine. I am able to compute numbers, shop in a store and manage myself at the bank. I think the math experiences I had as a child prepared me for a success life where working with numbers has never been a problem. Unfortunately, the current landscape of public education tells us that way of teaching was good enough; didn’t go deep enough and didn’t challenge students to master important concepts. So, here we are today, struggling with the new math – educators, students and families – all struggling with new math. I mean come on, who really understands bar modeling? And does it really matter in the end? I am not sold on the idea but for some reason many elementary kids in this country are being exposed to this concept, and many other new math concepts, and are being told that is the way they must solve the problem. Really? We want all our kids to use the same strategy no matter what their learning style? For me, this is one of the biggest problems plaguing our schools today as a result of new math!

With that being said, I think there are some significant upsides to the entire new math experience. First and foremost, we are introducing less concepts to children and we are challenging the children to explore these concepts at a deeper level. This focus on deeper understandings is important because it challenges the children to move beyond basic computation and apply concepts to different real life situations. Another piece of new math that I value is the idea that we are seeing an increase in the use of manipulatives during the introduction of new concepts so the children develop a concrete understanding before moving on to a more abstract one. It is a powerful evolution to observe. Finally, our children are developing stronger problem solving skills, which will serve them well in any scenario or situation. So, do I love everything about new math? No! Do I think we need to make some improvements? Yes! And the main thing we need to remember is that each of our children learn differently – some like the old way while others embrace the new.


Lisa Davis, Parent of kindergarten, 5th grade, and 7th grade students

Being the mom of 3 school aged children, you can be sure that the subject of “new math” has often been a topic of conversation. I also held the position of President of my elementary school PTA last year, the first year of implementation of common core in the state of New York.

I cannot tell a lie, none of the feedback from parents has been positive. For my daughter in 4th grade, the new math seemed less of an issue than for my 6th grade son. He had a rough time. As a matter of fact, so did his entire grade. The gaps in the curriculum proved very challenging. The pace was incredible, and the new “rigor” was certainly there. These factors on top of a transition from elementary school to middle school did not play in the favor of my son and his classmates.

At PTA meetings, I heard frustrated parents share homework questions, and discuss issues with helping with their children. Pictures were posted on Facebook and Twitter, showing 1st grade math problems that made even math majors scratch their heads.

Even with these experiences, I am not ready to definitively say that the new math is a failure. I still question where it came from, why it’s so different than the way we learned, and what created the need for such a change. But my inquisitive mind also wants to figure it out. I want to see why this is meant to be the answer we’ve been waiting for, that I didn’t realize we had questioned.

So we’ve been sold some promises. This new math will allow children to have a better number sense. They will be able to do “mental math” faster and at greater lengths than before. After a foundation of this math style, students will have a better understanding of math functions.

Ultimately, when asked my opinion on new math – I’m still undecided. There’s no question in my mind that new math was improperly rolled out. If the state had decided to begin new math in kindergarten last year, I think we would have been spared a lot of headaches. But as we can’t turn back the clock, I chose to be optimistic and hopeful that this new curriculum will deliver.


Gwen Pescatore, Parent of 1st grade, 4th grade, and 7th grade students

When I was taught math, we weren’t often just given a formula and set of numbers to compute. We were given a problem; one filled with words and numbers. We then needed to take the scenario and pull the pieces of information we needed to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes this meant completing several steps – and we always had to show our work and label our answers. Math was always real. It was calculating the tip for a waitress, the amount of carpet we needed for our room, how long it would take to drive to our vacation destination, how much time we would save if we increased our speed, and so on.

This part of the “new math” I am ALL for. I believe we need to show kids how what they’re learning in the classroom relates to their real life today and in the future. From here, I think I disagree more than I agree. I think there’s truth to the statement that “one size doesn’t fit all”. Showing our kids a variety of ways to solve a problem is wonderful. We not only appeal to different learning styles – but also ways to solve a problem in a variety of situations…but at what point are we throwing too many options at them? When does it simply cause confusion? When does it create a larger issue that you are spending so much time sharing the various ways to solve the problem, and not enough time allowing kids to become proficient using a select few? Also, why are we forcing kids to use a particular method to solve the problem?In my opinion, as long as they can solve the problem, show their work and explain why they chose the method they did – I say let them choose.

Personally, I feel lucky to be in the position we’re in at our school. When the math program changed over, we had several options to learn about it, what to expect as far as the writing and reading to come, and the timeline we should expect it may take our children to adjust. I have yet to see or hear people in our school or district sharing out math problems that they, as adults, struggle with when lending their child a hand doing homework as I’ve seen done in other places. I’m not saying there aren’t kids struggling. We do after all have a large ESL population. But…I don’t feel the struggles are as extreme.

Changes can be scary, especially when it can make you feel helpless and/or inferior. Schools need to do their part to eliminate as many of those fears as possible by providing families with information such as why there is a change, what “new math” looks like, an approximate length of time it may take for their kids to adjust…and where they can turn for help, when they need it, to be able to help their children at home.

A special thanks to Tony for being our first post collaborator! You can find Tony on Twitter at @tonysinanis and his blog at


4 responses to “Coffee Talk – “New Math”, Discuss

  • Jennifer Lawler (@jenniferklawler)

    As a mathematics educator for nearly two decades, I didn’t make it through the first sentence of this post before I started to cringe. The Common Core Standards have not adopted any “new math methods”. Rather, the CCSSM are a set of expectations for the mathematics that students should know, understand, and be able to do at the end of each grade level. They are a response to many long standing issues in the mathematics curriculum in the United States, specifically addressing the problem of a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” which requires students to learn too many things each year and results in them having a surface level understand of them at best and a need to do quite a bit of reteaching at the next grade level.

    There is no doubt that the standards are rigorous. According to the authors of the standards, there are three prongs to this rigor: procedural skills and fluency, conceptual understanding, and application. While many “reform” math programs have been trying to build students’ conceptual understanding in mathematics for many years, this is a whole new aspect of mathematics teaching and learning for many teachers, students, as well as parents. Another new wrinkle are the Standards for Mathematical Practice, “which describe varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students”. What appears like “new math” to parents are attempts by textbooks, marketed as “aligned to the Common Core”, to address these shifts in expectations. The bar models mentioned by Tony are a hallmark of “Singapore Math”, or its American incarnation, Math in Focus. This is the curriculum – not the standards.

    The CCSSM do place an emphasis on “strategies”, for example:

    1.OA.6. Add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and subtraction within 10. Use strategies such as counting on; making ten (e.g., 8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14); decomposing a number leading to a ten (e.g., 13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 = 9); using the relationship between addition and subtraction (e.g., knowing that 8 + 4 = 12, one knows 12 – 8 = 4); and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6 + 7 by creating the known equivalent 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13).


    3.OA.7. Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.

    The use of strategies is meant to capitalize on students prior knowledge, conceptual understanding, and help build connections between mathematics concepts that were previously taught in isolation. They are meant to help develop students’ flexibility with numbers – a skill that has been shown to separate high-achievers and low-achievers in later years.

    Want to see this in action? At your next cocktail party, ask a small group of people what 18 x 5 is. Then ask them how they figured it out (without a calculator). You will be astonished at the number of strategies that are employed, all of which lead to the same correct answer.

    While flexible strategies and number sense are important, the CCSSM also require students to memorize basic one-digit facts, and learn the “standard algorithm’. However, the “standard algorithm” isn’t taught until students have had the opportunity to develop these strategies so that they algorithm “makes sense” rather than just being a procedure to be memorized or imitated without true understanding.

    What parents and educators need to remember is that, at least for the most part, we did not experience mathematics as it is envisioned by the Common Core. For us, math was about two things – learning procedures and getting the right answer. There was no expectation for conceptual understanding (your’s is not to reason why, just invert and multiply), and the occasional “story problems” required little higher level thinking or actual problem solving. Making this transition will require extensive professional learning for teachers, as well as outreach to parents so that they feel they are able to support their children in their learning.

    I frequently hear the sentiment, “the old way worked just fine for me,” and honestly, it worked for me, too. It really wasn’t until I became a teacher that I realized how much the “old way” didn’t work for many kids, which is evident by the ridiculous number of college students forced to enroll in non-credit bearing remedial math courses. In fact, the “old way” never worked for millions of adults, who now proudly wear the “I was never good at math” badge of honor in a way that is strangely socially acceptable, while not being good a reading is not.

    I think Dr. Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor, said it best in a recent article. “In too many math classrooms, students believe that their role is to perform—to show they know math and can answer questions correctly—rather than to learn.” Students view mathematics as a “performance subject, the main purpose of which is to order and categorize students, rather than a rich and diverse subject that students should enjoy (Boaler 2009).” We, as educators and parents, need to do everything that we can to help our children see mathematics as a “learning subject” and one in which all can achieve at high levels. This may include becoming learners again ourselves and admitting that while “old math” worked for us, “new math” is designed to work for far more, and just might work better for our kids.

  • Sylvia Lima

    Yikes! Totally should have edited the post before submitting! Sorry!

  • Sylvia Lima

    Great post and certainly a hot topic for both teachers and parents.

    I’ll admit that I’m still on fence on #CCSS for all of the reasons mentioned in this blog post and a couple more. #CCSS came on our school’s radar a couple of years ago. At the time I didn’t understand what the implications were but an article in a local newspaper by our Director of Curriculum stopped me in my tracks. Basically he glossed over what CCSS Math was going to actually look like but what he did say was “if you have a young student now, by the time they reach 7th grade, parents would not be able to help them because the math would be so foreign to what we were used to.” Whoa! But then I started to pay closer attention because the reality is Math is not my kids strongest subject and it was never mine either.

    And then there was the teachers themselves who spent last summer cramming in learning, frameworks and curriculum for this coming year with very limited, quality CCSS resources. I honestly felt bad for them.

    Our District did offer Math Nights for each grade level, implementation plans, and videos that we could refer to and I honestly appreciated their time and efforts in creating and communicating this information to the parents.

    Interestingly enough, I started to realize the amount of Tutoring companies popping up all around my neighborhood and as we all know, those sessions aren’t cheap. In researching tutoring opportunities for my little guy (3rd grade), I found that a lot of teachers and ex-teachers were tutoring on the side for nowhere less than $65 per hour. These two facts both irk me to this day. Talk about widening the gap…

    And then there was the teachers themselves who spent last summer cramming in learning, frameworks and curriculum for this coming year with very limited, quality CCSS resources. I honestly felt bad for them.

    Our District will be rolling out the CCSS reading/writing curriculum next year. We’ve already started seeing it and although it does seem more difficult from the previous curriculum, I am more comfortable with this change.

    Thank you for offering me an opportunity to share =).

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A space for thinking, reflecting and sharing about education -- and the odd other thing...

Ingvi Hrannar

Icelandic educator, iPad 1:1 classroom, speaker & entrepreneur.

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013

Sharing our inquiries - March 23-30

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