Common Core Math Is Hard… Or Is It?

Before my daughter started school, I read news articles and viral Facebook posts about Common Core math questions. One question was 5 × 3 = 15. The student was penalized because he answered 5 + 5 + 5 instead of 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3. Here’s the link to the article.

At the time, I thought that it was really stupid. Now, my daughter has been in school for more than a year, I have bought multiple math programs based on Common Core math, I have read the standard itself… and it seems like a lot of the Facebook posts that were supposedly Common Core math were not, in fact, Common Core math. This is why it is important to read the standard itself.  Here’s the link to the Common Core State Standards Initiative for your reference.

As for the problem above, Common Core specifies the commutative property of multiplication so the student’s answer is right.


Apply properties of operations as strategies to multiply and divide.2 Examples: If 6 × 4 = 24 is known, then 4 × 6 = 24 is also known. (Commutative property of multiplication.) 3 × 5 × 2 can be found by 3 × 5 = 15, then 15 × 2 = 30, or by 5 × 2 = 10, then 3 × 10 = 30. (Associative property of multiplication.) Knowing that 8 × 5 = 40 and 8 × 2 = 16, one can find 8 × 7 as 8 × (5 + 2) = (8 × 5) + (8 × 2) = 40 + 16 = 56. (Distributive property.)

How Was the Math I Learned Different?

I was taught math differently than most people in the Philippines. I went to a Chinese school from kindergarten until freshman high school. My Chinese teachers taught math differently than my English/Tagalog teachers. The Chinese Math curriculum was a lot harder than the English/Tagalog Math. Those of us taking Chinese classes were advanced by at least two grade levels in Math. The Chinese teachers emphasized speed. Writing multiple steps down on paper that you could do in your head added time to solve math problems, so solving problems in your head was highly encouraged. The less steps you wrote to solve the problem, the better. I was part of the Math Olympiad team when I was a kid, and during competition, you needed to get the answer right and fast. The questions were all timed. Another major difference was that word problems were introduced in later grades. In Common Core Math, word problems start in kindergarten.


Why I Like Common Core Math?

Word Problems Are Introduced Early

Word problems are introduced in kindergarten. I like it because my daughter was able to apply what she learned in real life. The first time I asked her a word problem went something like this.

ME: If Pam had 2 flowers, then she got 4 more from her mom. How many flowers did Pam had in the end?

DAUGHTER: 5 flowers.

ME: How did you get that? Can you tell me how you solve it?

DAUGHTER: I don’t know.

I thought my daughter was just having a hard time working on addition so I broke the problem down.

ME: If Pam had 2 flowers. How many flowers did Pam had in the end?

DAUGHTER: 10 flowers.

ME: How did it become 10? Where did Pam get the rest from?

DAUGHTER: Well, 2 flowers is not enough. So Pam should get more flowers like 10.

I had to explain to my daughter that she cannot change the problem in the story. It was a very long discussion because she came up with different scenarios like “what if Pam thought 10 flowers was too heavy so she gave some away?” I told her it was fine to write her own scenarios, but she couldn’t change the scenarios that I gave her.

These days, she is now very good at solving word problems. This works for my daughter because she is able to comprehend English well. Kids whose primary language is not English might have a hard time understanding the problems and therefore might not be able to solve the them correctly.

Writing During Math Instruction Is Common

I do not recall ever writing during math class. With Common Core Math, kids are asked to explain their answers. I like this idea because it makes my daughter think about how she came up with the answer. She is also able to explain her steps in solving the problem. I am also able to verify whether she understood the problem or she just guessed the right answer. Being able to put ideas into writing so that others can understand them is very useful. If you are wondering where this skill might be useful, think about writing accounting software. Imagine giving somebody a document with just a bunch of equations and having a document that explains the equations. Which do you think would be easier to understand? These days, it is not uncommon for people on the same team to be located in multiple countries. You might only have a few working hours that overlap with another teammate, so reliance on written instruction is higher and being able to write well is quite useful. Even if people often interact personally, it is still a good idea to have written documentation. Sometimes, people are transferred to another team or leave the company. Having well-written documentation becomes very useful, because your former teammate is no longer available to answer questions.

Use of Multiple Strategies

The motto of Perl (a programming language) is “There’s More Than One Way To Do It,” which reminds me of Common Core Math. It teaches you multiple strategies to come up with the same answer. One of the strategies that Common Core teaches students is to use illustrations to solve problems. Initially, I thought that it was a huge waste of time. It takes a lot longer for my daughter to solve the problem because she likes drawing so much. She wants the flowers to be pretty. She would use different colors for the flowers even if the problem does not specify the flowers’ color. She would even color the leaves green and the stems brown. She doesn’t do that as much now, but what I have noticed is that she remembers the concept of addition and subtraction and able to retain it. When I taught her how to do mental addition and subtraction alone, she forgot it after a few days, and she would forget again after I re-taught her the concept.

Another strategy is the use of manipulative. Students are taught to use different objects to measure another object. I know that it’s more accurate to use a ruler or a measuring tape, but I have found this very useful in my daily life. One time, I needed to find out whether the couch would fit against the other side of the wall. I didn’t want start moving it only to find out that it didn’t fit. I couldn’t find our measuring tape and didn’t want to keep looking for it at the time. So, I took a piece of letter-size paper. I know the size of a standard letter paper is 8-½ by 11 inches. I used the 11 inch side to measure the couch and the wall. I didn’t need an exact measurement in this case. I just needed a good estimate.

So far, I have seen one subtraction strategy that seems difficult for my child and me, but the rest are easy to understand. Having multiple strategies available is really beneficial for my kid because she is able to visualize problems in her head. My child does not have a good memory, and would probably struggle a lot in math if she were forced to rely heavily on memorization. But because she understands the concepts, she is able to answer the problems fast. In the end, they can choose whichever strategy they understand well. Just like swimming lessons: students are taught different strokes, but outside of class they are free to use whatever stroke they want – or even a combination of different strokes.

When I was a kid, I used to play Tetris a lot. After playing it for several hours, I could easily imagine the tiles moving and knew how many times I had to turn it to fit. Common Core Math is just like that for my kid. She can easily visualize the ten-frame, flowers, frogs, or whatever objects in her head and move them around because she has done it so many times. She does not have to draw them all the time to solve the problem.

Is Common Core Math Really Harder?

It depends on where you live and depends on the grade. In California, some topics are introduced in later grades and some in earlier grades. An in-depth comparison between California Mathematics standards and Common Core standards finds many similarities between the old standard and Common Core. This is not surprising because the old standard was comparable to Singapore and Japan, as stated in the Mathematics Content Standards. According to the presentation, How Good are the Common Core Math Standards, Common Core math provides a smoother transition between grade levels and topics are introduced when the students are ready for them, which is why some topics have been introduced early and some later.

It also depends on the teacher. In my previous post, How My Kids Develop Math Confidence, I described how my older daughter initially struggled in math when she was in kindergarten and explained why. The teacher was doing exactly what the textbook (Envision 2012) suggested. She wasn’t a bad teacher. She was in fact a very good teacher that was following the schedule stated in the teacher’s edition even when the kids were struggling with it. One time, the whole class had to repeat the test on counting to 100 because everyone in class failed it.  Based on the textbook schedule, the kids had 10 days to learn counting from 21-100. Given that everyone failed, 10 days clearly wasn’t enough. What her teacher should have done was to start teaching how to count to 100 gradually from August, so that by the time that counting to 100 was supposed to be taught in December, the kids would already know most of it.  They should have practiced counting everyday until the kids had memorized it. This is what my daughter’s first grade teacher does. She asked the kids to count from 1-120 from the beginning of the school year even when the textbook schedule says that it’s supposed to be taught in the middle of the school year. My kid’s kindergarten teacher and first grade teacher both taught based on Common Core but the more effective one doesn’t just rely on the textbook schedule. She figured out how kids learn and customized her teaching based on her experience and not just what the textbook schedule suggests.

What Can I Do To Help My Struggling Child?

Look at all of the worksheets that your child bring home. Sometimes, the homework itself may not have examples on how to solve the problem, but the worksheets that they work on in school will. If there are no examples, ask the teacher for help. It is also possible that the textbook that the school uses is the problem. A great teacher would customize the textbook to make it work for the kids. If your child’s teacher isn’t like that, then start tutoring your child on the topics that he or she is struggling with. If the teacher has moved on to the next topic but your child hasn’t mastered the previous one yet, keep practicing it until your child has mastered it. If you keep doing this, your child will eventually catch up. When he does, try to anticipate the next topic and teach that ahead of the classroom schedule. Read How My Kids Develop Math Confidence Part 2 to learn how to help your child to not just catch up but even excel in math. Also, if you are not good at math, then use this opportunity to learn it. I am not good at writing but I still teach my daughter writing. I am scared that I might teach her the wrong rules. But, I teach her anyway because although I am not good at writing, I am still better than her and I think I can teach her what I know. I also bought books to teach myself how to write better, because eventually she will catch up to me!


It’s quite difficult to use one standard for everyone. To some kids, Common Core is too hard. To other kids, it’s too easy. And then there’s another group where it’s just right. As a parent, I just do what works for my child. What currently works for her is Common Core Math at an accelerated rate. She’s first grade in school but she’s working on second grade Common Core math at home. If she keeps learning at the same rate, she’ll probably start third grade Common Core math before she finishes first grade. In the end, my goal for her is to be able to apply the math she is learning in real life. If she were able to get good grades in school and ace standardized tests by practicing answering questions that were going to be on her tests in school, but not be able to figure out the practical applications of what she learns, then that would be a huge waste of time.

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