Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Elementary Math Lessons Are Changing In Florida Schools

Frances S. Tucker Elementary Schoo fifth grade math teacher Yaliesperanza Salazar leads her class through an exercise to group data on a line graph.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Frances S. Tucker Elementary School fifth grade math teacher Yaliesperanza Salazar leads her class through an exercise to group data on a line graph.

At dinner tables across Florida, parents and their elementary school children are trying to solve a math problem: What’s going on with my kid’s homework?

Florida is one of dozens of states that has switched to new math standards based on Common Core. The standards outline what students should know in every grade.

Experts say it means big changes to how math is taught. More focus on understanding concepts and solving problems multiple ways. Less memorization of formulas and grinding out worksheets full of similar problems.

Math is a constant conversation for Jessica Knopf and her fifth-grader, Natasha.

They talk about math at the dinner table. They send questions and answers by phone. They sought tutoring in online videos.

“When this Common Core stuff starting coming home,” Knopf says, “it wasn’t something I could just scribble and go ‘Oh, here it is.’ No. I had to stop. I had to think about it. I had to go online to Khan Academy. I had to bring my husband in. It wasn’t logical.”


Jessica Knopf and her daughter, Natasha, after a homework session.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Jessica Knopf and her daughter, Natasha, after a homework session.

Florida’s new math standards are tough. They’ve meant more homework for kids.

Most nights, Natasha’s math homework takes about two hours most nights. This evening she’s correcting errors from a recent test. One question asks her to write an algebraic equation to figure out the price of a DVD. Another requires her to recall the commutative property of addition when figuring out the price of several packages of ground beef.

In every case, she has to provide a written explanation of what she did wrong and how she got to the correct answer. And show her work.

Natasha says she has had to cut back on hobbies.

“I would like to have time to do more dance,” she says. “And I auditioned for a company at a studio, but it was too many hours for me to do. And my mom said I couldn’t because the amount of homework I get is just a lot.”

Natasha’s mom says the parents in her South Miami-Dade County neighborhood have similar complaints.

And the new methods of solving math problems are unfamiliar to a lot of parents.

“It’s been very frustrating,” Knopf says. “I’m not going to take the time to learn this to teach her. I’m going to teach her my way.”


The goal is that kids understand how and why a mathematical concept works says Maria De Armas, the assistant superintendent for academia with Miami-Dade schools.

“Teachers will spend a much longer period of time with one problem,” she says, “doing it in many different ways.”

It’s like knowing a word is an adverb because of how it’s used rather than just because the word ends in –ly.

Schools across the county held sessions to help explain to parents what’s new with math lessons.

“Yeah, it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be different,” De Armas says. “If it isn’t, then I’m concerned…If there wasn’t concern from parents, I would be worried because things are not changing.”

Schools still teach the traditional method for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

But you’re more likely to see visual techniques too — like making a diagram, a matrix or drawing a picture. The more ways they solve a problem, the more students make the connection between numbers and concept.


 Frances S. Tucker Elementary School fifth grade teacher Yaliesperanza Salazar. Math lessons are carefully designed to match Florida's new Common Core-based standards.

John O’Connor / StateImpact Florida

Frances S. Tucker Elementary School fifth grade teacher Yaliesperanza Salazar. Math lessons are carefully designed to match Florida’s new Common Core-based standards.

Students at Frances S. Tucker Elementary School in Coconut Grove are learning about a line plot – a way to visualize and organize data.

These students are counting whether someone has one-quarter, one-half or three-quarters of a glass of apple juice. They add a dot for each amount, stacking four dots above one-quarter on the number line.

The lesson is carefully structured for the new math standards — not by the classroom teacher, but by experts from the school district. They’re the ones who pick questions from the textbook to use in class.

Fifth grade math teacher Yaliesperanza Salazar starts by reviewing recently completed lessons.

Then she explains the day’s goal to the entire class.

Finally, the class breaks up into small groups to create their line plots illustrating the cakes, chocolate bars and other treats students ate. The final goal: come up with the size of the average student’s share.

Most parents are seeing these techniques for the first time. These techniques are not actually new. Many are part of a broader movement called reform math to change the way the subject is taught.

But drawing a diagram can take longer. There’s more emphasis on writing explanations for answers.

Barry Garelick started teaching math several years ago after retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency. He didn’t like what he saw his daughter being taught.

Garelick says there is a lot to like about Common Core – particularly the way lessons build on each other. But he also says schools should still emphasize traditional skills, like memorizing multiplication tables. He says the standards sometimes aren’t clear when concepts should be taught.

He disagrees that math education needs an overhaul.

“Part of this groupthink is that traditional math has failed and that we need a new way to teach it,” Garelick says.

“Some parents may not have been good in math,” he says, “and they’ll buy into the excuse ‘Oh, that’s why I’m not good in math.’ And so they’ll believe it. They’ll put their trust in the school.”

At Jessica Knopf’s dinner table, Natasha prefers her mom’s way to the school’s way.

“Now they’re teaching you with models that I really don’t understand the lesson,” she says. “That’s why when I come home, I ask for my mom’s method.”

Her mom says she sees the benefit of the changes – she’s thinks visually too. But if the homework keeps stacking up like this, she might take Natasha out of her advanced classes.


  • Joe

    As a 4th grade teacher, I have tried teaching these new tools and models. It has added the number of steps and teaches the children to just be close. The ones who struggled with math struggle more now that there are extra tools to figure out and we mislead them by playing these little games of changing numbers and trying to figure out that 34 – 8 is actually 35 – 10 – 1 + 2. There are numerous more places for mistakes and the grades are actually dropping. The kids who do understand the new models actually make comments like, “of course you came up with a different answer, you solved it a different way than I did.” They don’t realize how the numbers relate to each other and that 24 time 17 is always the same, no matter which tool you use to solve it. If we just teach them what the numbers actually represent and require them to learn basic addition and subtraction so they can actually do the arithmetic portion of the problem, they will have a much better chance to succeed. Our students get dumber and dumber as we keep complicating basic subjects in an effort to find a magic bullet to replace actual learning.

    • chrisg .

      I agree with you. I feel bad for today’s kids. While I’m sure it may have been a struggle for us back in the day using it the old fashion way, we still ended up figuring it out the old fashion ways. I will teach my kid the way I was taught. That way, I know for a fact that I’m doing it the right way and that I will get the right answer. I pity those who are “looking for an easy way out”, because people are already getting lazy. If I’m not mistaken, that’s what Common Core seems to be for people.

    • There are two questions I have for your criticism, Joe. What kind of “understanding” were your students actually demonstrating when the grades were higher? Who “knows” subtraction better? The kid who does 100-99 using the stacking algorithm, or the one who recognizes that 99 is just 1 shy of 100?

      You mention using “regular” arithmetic so they have a better chance to succeed. Succeed at what, exactly?

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Chuck Baker, HS math teacher

      • carlusha

        Thank you, Chuck Beker. Please view my post above.

    • carlusha

      Honestly, I think our elementary and middle school math teachers are getting dumber and dumber too. After all, most of them are the products of the same educational system that they work in. Yes, everywhere in the world, except maybe the US, children learn arithmetic in many different ways. That’s how they master mental math. For your example 34-8 you can try 34 – 4 – 4 = 30 – 4 = 26. Teaching it doesn’t mean complicating basic subjects, not teaching it means screwing children up and ruining their chance at success with advanced math.

  • chrisg .

    I’m not sure if it would’ve been logical even with the husband, unless he’s the one that created common core.

  • Brian

    The narrator was incorrect when he said that NBC only added the two lines at the bottom of the page just to make common core appear more complex. My child is learning the common core math and it was explained to he and I that this information is required on the page to receive full credit for his work in getting the correct answer. I am all for change as long as it is an improvement over the way things have been done in the past but this common core math hasn’t proved to me that it is an improvement. As for math having to be done quickly, for most kids going into the workforce, they will not be going into jobs in the math field but their job will most likely require them to be able to do some level of math and to keep their job they will be required to do it quickly. I feel positive that a young person starting a job and while on the job they are drawing pictures to determine that 34″ – 9″ = 25″ , probably will not last long on that job. So yes, in the real world, in most cases, math will be expected to be completed quickly.

    I definitely agree with the post made by Joe, the 4th grade teacher, that changing the numbers just adds complication and confusion to the original question and just opens the door for more mistakes to be made.

  • kevintapee

    I love how the parent went to Khan academy which teaches you the traditional method for problem solving. Some kids need different methods to problem solving, so you teach them and not the whole class a different method. I can stand in a grocery store and figure out in my head the price per pound of ground beef without stopping to draw a picture or write a convoluted equation to figure it out. What’s wrong with the traditional method? It worked for millions of us.

  • juanmas53

    There’s nothing wrong with having standards that indicate what you should learn at each level. But coupling these standards with radical new methodologies may be the kiss of death that could ruin another generation of kids when it comes to math. I say this because the so called experts back in the 1960s came up with the “new math” concept that also changed the way math was taught and ruined a whole generation of kids.

    Just like the “new math”, parents are complaining that common core math procedures are too foreign to understand. And just like the “new math”, teachers find themselves teaching methods and material they don’t fully understand.

    The classroom is no place for experimenting with unproven concepts. We are making the same mistakes made during the 1960s and It is clear to me that we have not learned the lessons from the “new math” debacle!

  • Wayne Bishop

    These math ed insights into “deeper understanding” representative an actual lack of understanding on the part of the perpetrators. a traditionally presented word problem with underlying mathematics implication through final interpretation of the mathematics back into the original setting represents more mathematics understanding that all of their paragraphs explaining why they did what they did. Similar comments apply to multiple approaches to computation. For example, the “lattice method” for multiplication (that has been being forced onto schools by a popular reform curriculum, Everyday Math, for nearly a quarter century) represents less understanding of base-10 numeration inherent in the algorithm than does the traditional multiplication algorithm. Lots of teachers not understand why it works much less most students including the one who is demonstrating it. She is putting numbers in little boxes because that’s thing to do and adds diagonally because she supposed to; not because she understands why she’s doing it. We,at the university level, are already getting too many of these students who are incompetent at the arithmetic through common fractions computation level let alone the algebra level and we are only going to get more as these Common Core-Math students come to us in years to come. Success in any math-based discipline – so-called STEM majors – will be even more difficult for nearly all students but those who will be hurt the worst (as usual) are those who come from low socioeconomic and poorly educated, often non-English-speaking, communities. These students do not have compensating opportunities such as Khan Academy or a knowledgeable family member. The American promise of upward mobility through education becomes more a lie then a birthrate.

    Professor of Mathematics
    California State University LA

  • Lane Walker

    It saddens me to see our Country so confused about mathematics instruction and misled about the Common Core. Common Core is about understanding, not “putting” numbers on the paper. The “Lattice Method” makes no sense and is not Common Core. Listening to the video we hear “put” about a dozen times. Unfortunately, unless one has studied the Common Core math standards, news reports like this is what forms opinion. The CC writers explain how multiplication needs to be understood and there is no mention of “Lattice method” because it is a memorized procedure that doesn’t make sense to most young students: http://commoncoretools.me/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/ccss_progression_nbt_2011_04_073_corrected2.pdf page 14. Unfortunately, primary source information does not seem to inspire a viral response like misleading information does. This country cannot afford to continue with the abysmal success rates we have had in mathematics instruction, and shooting down mathematics standards that can help is not something that should be celebrated.

  • Milt

    I also want to discuss the rarely discussed effect of moving so many of these tests to multiple choice.I am engineer, and whether that is good or bad for a discussion of education, I dare say I do require a healthy grasp of applying math to stay gainfully employed. The multiple choice tests have substantially reduced if not obliterated the concept of getting partial credit for your work. And, in my opinion, in the test maker’s guilt to no longer be able to present complex problems that a bubble simply doesn’t serve, have to come to wording problems in such a complex way as to be silly and unproductive. I have always been in favor of the much maligned “trick questions” because I think they test knowledge even better, but these are such scrambled presentations they test nothing but perhaps poor writing. I reviewed my 11 year old’s pre-algebra exam recently, and there were five of 15 questions that, while teaching a very valuable concept of percentages, discounts, taxes,and tips, were so difficult to understand the question and goal, that it took me nearly five full minutes to understand each question. And most importantly, the valuable lesson was lost in obfuscation and abstraction. This is a horrible disservice to the students, regardless of standards.
    I do pity all of you teachers who followed the calling to teach, and instead have been demoted to mere proctors for ridiculous tests.

  • Teresa

    The biggest difference I noticed in the subjects being taught is math. This new method, which neither myself or the teacher who is teaching it understands, seems to do two things. First, it confuses the student because they teach several different methods in order to solve one problem. Second, it teaches groupthink. If the explanation was not worded a certain way it was considered wrong. I don’t see how this method is supposed to help students in the future.

  • Dee Zee

    what would you say to a classroom where the children are supposed to teach each other and/or themselves. The students are disruptive and discouraged lacking the desire to do their work. It doesn’t seem to matter as there is a way to pass anyone for various reasons. The teachers are equally discouraged because they are not allowed to actually teach so the children will learn. Standards are lowered to make children feel successful but they don’t. When given a reading assignment the children cannot read it and don’t even try. They cannot pick facts out of a story to answer questions they are given. This is only a partial description – but I’m wondering – what kind or method of teaching is this?? Talk about the dumbing down American students. Any explanations out there?????

  • Melissa

    - 9
    In my head over 45 years now.
    No crossing out. It makes a mess. This is simple, easy peasy.
    If you take from the tens place then pay it back.
    Think 14-9 But pay the 1 you borrowed and put it under the 3, write it in till mentally a kid gets the hang of it very quickly too.
    In fact, all the while your are borrowing 1 ( or better said, your borrowing 10, 100, 1000…)
    Let’s say the math problem looks like this:
    Think 13-7=6 then pay the 1 back to the 2 (in the tens place) now think 5-3=2
    No crossing out you just have to remember to pay back the place value where you borrowed
    ———– thought process 15-9, 8-5, 17-8, 6-6
    Here we borrowed from the 10s and 1000s place.
    All done in your head. No messy paper and certainly not as daft as common core crap.

  • ddd34690

    My granddaughter just entered second grade and brought home 2 math tests, one D and one F because of the “new math”. Her answers were right but the method she used (the one from last year) was wrong. Now as long as you get all the letter in a word it’s CorErct no matter what oDRer. There goes the 3R’s. I bet the people who approved the common core can’t pass a second grade math test.

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