Virtues of Common Core Math

by Mardi Gale

A few weeks ago my husband surprised me with an early birthday party. It was amazing, but during dinner the subject of the Common Core came up during my conversation with two guests, an architect and an elementary educator. They both expressed some of the common reservations and concerns that I have heard about the standards from others. Party or not, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to clear up some confusions and misconceptions of the real intent and origin of the Common Core from my perspective as an educator of more than 40 years, a mother, and a new grandmother. I’d like to share some of the same facts I shared with my guests. 

The Common Core is not a curriculum and was not government mandated. Rather the Common Core identifies the skills we want students to learn and be able to apply in real world situations. The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics attempt to put focus, coherence, and rigor into the math taught in classrooms. They organize the mathematical ideas all students should learn, combining connected math ideas into topic clusters so related concepts are taught together rather than in isolation, as they are often presented in separate textbook chapters.

Math is not about speed, so why time test?

Math is not about reciting rules or shortcuts; it’s about applying the skills we learn to make sense of our world. This includes measuring, finance, purchases, living expenses, and even spatial sense for driving and packing the trunk of the car.

Math is about critical thinking, persevering to make sense of a situation, using procedures when necessary, and seeing and interpreting the patterns around us.

Turning back to my granddaughter for a moment, Emily is now eight months old. After all of my years of experience in the classroom, working with teachers in different capacities, and raising two children with different mathematical inclinations, I now have the pleasure of introducing Emily to the beautiful world of shapes, numbers, and mathematics.

My concern isn’t what I can do with her at home or what she sees on Sesame Street. (On which, by the way, they went to great lengths to make the point that a shape that looks like a diamond is really called a rhombus. Yay, Sesame Street! Thank you for using academically precise language). My concern is that Emily learn math at a conceptual level.

Neither of our adult children left their math classes with as much conceptual understanding as they could have. Oh, they got practice—lots of it—and procedures to memorize. But I want Emily to be able to use critical thinking when faced with non-routine problems and connect the math procedures she is taught. I want her asking “Why does it work and when/how can I use it.”

No program, set of standards, approach to teaching, or educational philosophy comes without flaws, but by the time I had finished sharing my opinions at the party, both the architect and the teacher said they could now see the value in the intent of the standards, especially in the focus on conceptual understanding and critical thinking. As with every new educational venture, the trick to approaching new standards is to look for the best parts and expand them, to deepen the teaching and learning beyond the surface level.

If you’re interested in reading more about math under the common core, Solomon Friedberg’s Common Core Math is Not Fuzzy and Jo Boaler’s Memorizers are the Lowest Achievers both offer a great entry to further exploration.

To hear from experts and see conceptual problem-solving instruction in action, view the Problem Solving tag in on the Resources page.


Senior Research Associate, Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM), WestEd