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Pedagogical Shifts in Common Core Mathematics

By Lindsay Reeves, CEI Intern

As more states make modifications to Common Core before fully implementing the standards, one constant remains: the way math has worked in previous years is no longer sufficient in preparing students for college or career after graduation. The problem is not simply that the standards are changing. The problem is pedagogical in nature. That is, although these new paradigm shifts have garnered both positive and negative responses, they leave many parents, educators, and students wondering about the prime motivator behind the changes.

In the past, the general emphasis in math has been on the breadth of the content, not the depth. Common Core seeks to remedy this issue by introducing fewer topics with a variety of conceptual challenges appropriate for each student in every grade level.

The new shifts include a greater demand on(Common Core Standards, 2014):

  1. Focus

  2. Coherence

  3. Fluency

  4. Deep Understanding

  5. Application

  6. Dual Intensity

How do these play out?

“Plug and chug.’ This kind of memorization that has unintentionally highlighted mathematics, has proven to be obsolete in its manifestations beyond the classroom in later years (Friedberg, 2014). Students tracked for college and career will, in a general sense, not be required to recite basic facts like time tables or, what is emphasized in higher grades, formulas. More than likely they will be asked, in some sense, to demonstrate reasoning skills that build upon these rudimentary tasks. This means that a variety of methods beyond memorization must be introduced to help students meet the demands of a more rigorous set of objectives. For example, eighth graders are now expected not only to tackle linear algebra and functions, but to have mastered them. Although this sounds difficult, it assumes that students have been working on concepts related to this subject matter, dating all the way back to grade six, when they first began working with basic algebraic expressions. If they have been properly equipped in the earlier years, having been far removed from the need to memorize formulas, the standards assume that they are prepared to build, with complexity, on how to apply such formulas (Key Shifts in Mathematics, 2014).

Language demands. Many educators are faced with the growing concern about student proficiency in numerical computations with accompanying language demands. Traditionally high math performance could exist without a student ever mastering written language skills.   With Common Core, however, both English and math are becoming increasingly intertwined, making it difficult for those who are ESOL learners, or for those who simply lag behind in the ‘softer’ subjects. Some may say that this isn’t a new issue; word problems have certainly been implemented over the years. While this is indeed true, some students may have been able to decipher or manipulate the problem in a way that allowed them to move past the language barrier. Prompting them to respond with reasoning formed by complete sentences with correct syntax is a rather novel concept.

  1. In the earlier grades, students are now being asked to justify how an equation is solved.

  2. Students who are able to justify the approach they took are more likely to accomplish more difficult tasks as the grade levels increase.

  3. Being able to justify one’s approach becomes imperative when proofs and other more complex reasoning problems arise (Common Core Ratchets Up Language Demands for English-Learners, 2013).

Addressing criticisms. Many critics of Common Core math argue that students are generally confused about the abstractness and the real practicality found with the standards. They suggest that the ‘old way’ is perfectly find in addressing preparation for pursuing endeavors beyond high school. However, statistics and studies performed at an international level suggest that the average American student is ill-prepared for the challenges he/she will face post-graduation. For example, ‘one in four U.S. students did not reach the PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) baseline level 2 of mathematics proficiency. At this level, ‘students begin to demonstrate the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life,’ according to the PISA report (Ryan, 2013).

Perhaps as Common Core continues to advance and evolve in its implementation, student success may align itself as well. In the meantime, addressing the need for increased rigor beyond ‘chug and plug’ and helping students meet those demands across subject areas are critical indicators for progress in the future of education. 

References Common Core Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Common Core Ratchets Up Language Demands for English-Learners. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Friedberg, S. (2014, September 15). Common Core math is not fuzzy: Column. Retrieved from

Key Shifts in Mathematics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Ryan, J. (2013, December 3). American Schools vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, Bad at Math. Retrieved from

CEI Note: CEI is very supportive of all efforts to teach students about different ways to solve problems and how to justify or explain the approach they have taken. However, we are also mindful of the many challenges that English Language Learners and students with IEPs face. We believe how students demonstrate their prowness with reading and writing English as they display math knowledge and skills needs to be examined with these considerations in mind.

Lindsay Reeves is a 2009 graduate of the University of Georgia, where she received her BA in Political Science. She works as a researcher for Net-Texts, Inc. and as a rater for the Georgia Center for Assessment. Her items and pieces have been used by Homecourt Publishers and A Pass Education Group.

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