What I wish parents knew about math education in today’s politically charged climate

Milestones and Miracles Note- from Nicole: While we typically aren’t a company that dives into anything political publicly, we are parents and therapists that believe in supporting other parents. And when we know about something or learn about something that might help another parent, we will share at all costs. That’s why we created this space. This blog post is the result of years of begging. My daughters have had the gift of having Cindy Evarts as a math teacher or mentor of their other math teachers in some way for the past 7 years.  During that time, as parents we have not only learned the real “why” behind the frenzy many parents are facing and questioning with their children’s math instruction, but also been empowered to learn ourselves so that we can help our children succeed.  In doing so, I have nagged Mrs. Evarts to put what she has eloquently explained to me into words for others. I trust her immensely, not only for her vast knowledge and experience, but because I have seen my children understand math in ways I once only memorized for short periods. It is my hope that her words will also empower you to get excited about embracing math and the possibilities that working with your child’s teacher hold in helping your child succeed and enjoy learning. We are forever grateful for her unmeasurable contribution to the students and teachers in our county. 

What I wish parents knew about math education in today’s politically charged climate.

By: Cindy Evarts

As I write this – the West Virginia state legislature is debating bills that are intended to change the way I teach mathematics in my classroom.  The debate is heated.  Sponsors of the bills want to “prohibit” the use of Common Core standards in West Virginia and replace them with a set of standards from California from 1997.  The sponsors of the bill cite the “widespread dismay over Common Core standards” as the reason along with opposition to what they see as “federal overreach” to our state.  How did this happen and why do we – both teachers and parents –  need to pay attention?

Standards vs. Curriculum.

First, it is important to know the difference between standards and curriculum.  Standards spell out what students should know and be able to do at the end of each school year.  Curriculum is written to provide ways to meet the standards.  The Common Core State Standards Initiative provided only standards – not curriculum.  Curriculum has always been left up to local school districts to choose and adopt.  So what’s all the fuss about?

Unlike previous standards, the Common Core State Standards did not merely provide a list of topics to be covered by teachers and memorized by students, they also required students to acquire a deep understanding of concepts.  This was what good math teachers had been doing all along and this was what was required to produce students who were not only good at passing math classes – but could also know how to apply the mathematics required to keep our nation competitive with the rest of the world.

Why The Change?

So why the “widespread dismay?”  Don’t we want our students to be able to develop understanding rather than just memorization?  Don’t we want our students to have the mathematics skills they need to compete with students from other states and with the rest of the world?  Do we really want politicians “prohibiting” teachers from using standards that are research based and designed to produce students who can think critically?

Teaching for understanding is not easy.  It requires a teacher with the commitment to understand not only her content area but also to know her students.  It often means long hours seeking lesson ideas that go beyond worksheets and finding ways to provide students opportunities to solve meaningful problems and work together with others to build understanding. Good teachers along with forward thinking school districts have spent countless hours working to build and adopt curriculum designed to meet these researched and rigorous standards.  It has been a slow process – and now, after we are beginning to see progress – we are faced with a situation in which we may be prohibited from using what we know is working. 

Are there problems with Common Core?  Yes – but most of the widespread dismay is really about a lack of understanding about curriculum – not standards.  Textbook companies still want to sell textbooks and busy teachers still want worksheets.  The problem is – how do you design a worksheet to promote deep understanding?  The misunderstandings about how to accomplish that goal made for many indignant Facebook posts pointing out what many saw as ridiculous steps to solving simple problems. The standards were adopted without commitment to the quality teacher training needed to ensure their success and the public’s backing.

But How Can I Help My Child?

Much of the opposition to the standards has come from parents.  I know for parents it can be a struggle to help our children who are taught in classrooms using methods designed to build conceptual understanding.  We were not taught this way – we know the procedures and algorithms we were taught in school but many of us are at a loss when our children are given activities designed to promote thinking rather than memorizing.  I know it is tempting to “teach” our kids tricks and procedures to quickly solve the problem.  However, what we don’t realize is that by providing shortcuts, we take away the very struggle that promotes the brain growth needed to be successful in higher level mathematics.  Don’t worry – the algorithms you know and love will be taught to your children when they are developmentally ready –  and the deep understanding they have gained in the process may help them come up with even more efficient algorithms!  In the meantime – parents should do what they can to support their children’s growth in mathematical understanding and can consult sources like Khan Academy, Youcubed.org, or Greatschools.org for help in understanding the standards.

In my math classroom there is no discussion about standards versus curriculum.  My students don’t have time to worry about federal overreach or listen to a politician debate about who has the power to decide what they learn.  My students are too busy debating how to solve percent problems or the best way to balance an equation.  They groan when I give them homework and they cheer whenever I find a lesson that involves food.  They worry about tests and they are forever losing their pencils.  They are 7th graders and they don’t always see how what they learn today in my math class will apply to their future.  However, they are making progress and they are gaining the skills that will help them to be successful in higher-level math classes.  They have learned to work together and they have learned from their mistakes.  I wish that our politicians could do the same.

Cindy Evarts is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescent Mathematics (2003, 2013), a President’s Award Winner for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching 2014, and an Arch Coal Award Winner in 2015. She received her BS is Elementary Education from Salisbury State and her MS in Gifted Education from Johns Hopkins University. She has been teaching for 33 years in Florida, Connecticut, Maryland, and West Virginia from preschool – 8th grade and is currently teaching at South Middle School in Martinsburg, WV. She joins us in believing that “Play Builds Brains,” even for middle school students, and teaches math to her lucky students through play with robotics, blocks, and hoola hoops. 

2 replies
  1. Louisa
    Louisa says:

    Love this blog by Ms Evarts. Math needs to be taught for a deep understanding. We also need to make sure the teachers get the training that they need to be able to provide the education to the students. Thank you thank you thank you Cindy

  2. Sara Tamplin
    Sara Tamplin says:

    I’m privileged to know Cindy personally. I’m a retired educator who spent most of my career teaching overseas in international schools. I can certainly verify that Cindy’s assessment hold true, not only for math, but for all disciplines. It takes time to teach kids how to think, and it is time that is often sacrificed in schools. We are at an important crossroad. Thank you, Cindy!


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