Inside Eureka Math: Does a popular Common Core math curriculum move too fast for young students?

Jan 23, 2017 | Klahanie

It’s been a familiar scene in Louisiana public schools for more than a decade, that point in fourth grade when students learn how fractions are related to decimals. Judy Milford is teaching the concept to her class of 30 children at Alice Birney Elementary in Metairie.

There’s a big 3 on the whiteboard. Behind that number, she tells them, goes a decimal, and behind that decimal go parts of the whole. Aren’t fractions parts of a whole, just like decimals? she asks.

The standard is similar — that children know 3/10 is the same as 0.3 – but how they grasp that knowledge is strikingly different. Now, they must learn to write “expanded form” — 1/10 + 1/10 + 1/10 = 3/10 — and know that this is the same as 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 = 0.3, or one tenth + one tenth + one tenth = three tenths.What’s different this year is that Milford is trying to raise her students’ performance to the level of the controversial Common Core state standards, not the old Louisiana grade-level expectations. And she’s using the popular Eureka Math curriculum, which confounds some parents, to get them there.

Eureka Math, a Common Core-aligned curriculum published by the non-profit Great Minds Inc., equates mathematical concepts to stories, with the aim of developing conceptual understanding. Like Common Core, it encourages students to use various mental strategies to solve problems, and to focus on the process instead of the answer.

Birney Elementary and hundreds of other Louisiana schools have designated Eureka as their math roadmap, after the state Education Department gave the curriculum high marks in 2013. Yet the program has its critics, including some parents, teachers and school administrators who lament that it asks too much, too soon of students, particularly in the younger grades. Its strategies have been lambasted as confusing and unnecessary. The St. Tammany Parish School Board has abandoned it altogether, and several other school systems only use it sparingly.

Some of the backlash can be attributed to a speedy sea change in math education, as all involved are expected to do what they’ve never done before. And it’s coming to a head next week, when thousands of Louisiana students in third through eighth grade begin taking the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests. Hundreds of parents, critiquing math questions or other test aspects, have pledged to have their children skip the tests, leaving test-driven teacher evaluations and school performance scores to hang precariously in the balance.

Often lost in the uproar, however, is a comparison of the Eureka curriculum and the Common Core standards themselves, and how they contrast with previous teaching methods and learning expectations.

Curriculum versus standards

Eureka has local roots, but national ties. The group behind it is a Washington D.C.-based non-profit publisher that was once called Common Core Inc. but that is in no way related to the actual Common Core State Standards Initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. After the non-profit published a Common Core-aligned English and language arts curriculum in 2010, its president and executive director, Lynne Munson, began hearing from educators who wanted one for math, too.

Munson’s group, which later changed its name to Great Minds, teamed up with Scott Baldridge, a Louisiana State University math professor who is Eureka’s lead writer. They soon won a contract with New York Education Department to create Eureka, or Engage New York.

Thus far, the Eureka/Engage NY package has received high praise, from LouisianaTennessee and, an independent standards review organization. Of the 20 curriculums teachers, content specialists and other experts studied, Eureka was most aligned with Common Core, experts found.

Still, Common Core and Eureka aren’t identical, Munson said. Standards are guidelines for what children should learn and know; curriculums are a way to get there. “Do they meet the standards? Yes,” Munson said. “But they are far from the same thing, and they’ve never been the same thing.”

At times, parent frustration with Eureka or other math curriculums has manifested itself as an outright dismissal of Common Core. But there are differences, such as Eureka’s “sprints” exercises, in which students must solve as many math problems as they can within a certain time limit. Sprints are meant to achieve a Common Core standard of problem-solving “fluency,” although Common Core itself doesn’t mention speed of calculation.

More abstractly, the curriculum provides a roadmap and a timetable. Eureka might suggest a student spend 20 days to learn fractions and decimals and suggest a variety of ways to do that, while the standards simply say that the student should know those concepts by a certain grade.

Phil Daro, a California-based mathematics director who helped write the Common Core standards, emphasized that they don’t tell educators how to teach. Still, he said, there are ties between what’s expected and how it’s delivered. “It would be naïve to suggest that when you change the what, it doesn’t have implications for the how,” he said.

New math versus old math

Daro praised the Eureka curriculum, and Common Core, in a recent interview. Generally, he said the idea behind Common Core was to “get the junk food” out of math education in the United States. “We have way too many topics. We are teaching too many little disorganized things,” he said. “And we weren’t spending enough time on these things.”

Now, it’s about deeply focusing on a few topics per grade level. The quickest way to get the right answer is no longer the priority. Instead, it’s about understanding the process, which could mean learning several methods to get the same result. The hope, Daro said, is to raise children’s performance to internationally competitive levels.

Methods also have been tweaked. For example, Common Core has completely revamped what children should know about fractions, Daro said, in an attempt to make them easier for Milford’s fourth graders and others to grasp.

Whereas before kids were made to understand fractions simply as pieces of pie, fractions are now more often equated to whole numbers. Just as 3+5=8, Daro said, “We want them to understand that 3 quarters plus 5 quarters equals 8 quarters.”

While a lot has changed, much hasn’t, Daro said. A problem like 3 times 5, at the earliest level, has always been three groups of five dots, circles or objects. Common Core and Eureka, he said, simply teach children to multiply those and larger numbers using pictures and other models, before they begin to stack one number atop another and carry over from the ones place to the tens place.

Implementation issues

Daro and Munson are, unsurprisingly, big proponents of Common Core and Eureka. But so is Milford, the Birney Elementary teacher, even though it’s her first year working with Eureka Math.

“When we were in school, we didn’t learn three different strategies for multiplication,” Milford said, pointing to posters of problems on the wall. Extra strategies, such as the expanded algorithm or the area model help children better understand what they are doing, she said.

Still, she understands the challenges. “We have not been taught like this,” she said. “And the parents weren’t taught like this. … So that’s why you have the struggle.”

Milford has been teaching for 31 years. A brief visit to her classroom and a glance at the decimal curriculum showed her swiftly moving through Eureka’s module and engaging her students. But other teachers might have more trouble, particularly with swift implementations and scant resources, said Rick Hess of the non-profit American Enterprise Institute.

“In reality, what happens in a lot of places is teachers aren’t really up to speed, the curriculum isn’t really clear to teachers and parents and kids aren’t comfortable with what’s happening,” he said.

Indeed, critics locally and nationally have decried Common Core’s implementation, calling it a rush job. Textbook companies have struggled to keep up with the standards’ 2010 release, and many have put out materials that weren’t vetted or well aligned. Louisiana adopted the standards in 2010 and its public schools fully implemented them in 2013-14, but the state’s initial hands-off approach to curriculum left local school system officials scrambling to vet and implement math curriculums themselves.

It was not until 2013 that state officials encouraged Eureka and began to provide training and other resources. A list of other state-reviewed curricula was not made available until 2014.

Many Jefferson Parish teachers received Eureka training for the first time in the current academic year. At a January Eureka Math-themed professional development session, teachers counted with their fingers along with Eureka trainers on a projector screen, watched classroom “sprints” and learned about number bonds.

Some wondered whether the lessons would hold with older students, who, like the teachers themselves, haven’t had much time to get acclimated to the new processes. “Students are coming in, and they assume that they’ve had it for five or six years and that they know how to do the special models,” said Jaime Landry, a teacher from Paul Solis Elementary in Gretna. “They don’t.”

Perplexed parents

For some, however, the issue is not timing but content. Mandy LeBoeuf, a Birney Elementary parent, said she doesn’t understand why some problems are so complex. Some things are useful, she said, but others? “It seems like it’s unnecessary, like it doesn’t need to be done,” she said.

Despite that, her fourth grader does well with the new strategies. He’s even on the honor roll.

But Jaime Havard, who has two children in Jefferson public schools, says her sixth grader doesn’t get the new methods. On worksheets, she said, “He does it his way on the side, real small,” because he knows it’s simpler.

Her younger daughter fared worse, even temporarily forgetting how to subtract with pencil and paper. Havard attributes the lapse to the volume and speed at which new methods were thrown at the child. “It introduced confusion where there was none,” she said.

Carol Burris, a veteran New York principal who has emerged as one of Common Core’s biggest critics, said younger children can’t handle many of the standards. “When you are talking about very young children, their cognitive development and their physical development is something that develops over time,” she said. “If you start pushing things too early, because they haven’t developed the abstraction, you start to hurt them.”

As an example, she cited a kindergarten standard that asks students to count from one to 100 by ones and tens. (Before, in Louisiana, kindergarteners were asked to count only to 20 and only by ones.) Half of 5-year-olds aren’t going to be able to do that, at least not fluently, Burris said.

Daro calls the developmental question a fair one. In creating the early grade standards, his team conferred with early learning specialists, gathered research and compared what children were asked to know with what was taught in other countries. But more studies are still needed, he said.

Baldridge, Eureka’s lead writer, advised critics to give the curriculum and the Common Core standards time. If young children in other places can grasp the concepts, so can those in the United States, he said.

After all, it’s not first time parents have been confounded by “new math.” Baldridge cited standards and curriculum changes in the 2000s, and earlier: “Anytime a new curriculum is implemented, these are the same issues that are going to occur, no matter what the curriculum is.”