MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - You'd think an effort to improve school standards and promote higher expectations for students -- adopted by 44 states; embraced by the business community, and endorsed by education reformers from both parties -- would be about as controversial as puppies or apple pie. Well, think again.
Over the past three years we've seen attacks against the Common Core standards leaving boardrooms of activists or conservative pundits and steadily filtering in to local candidates' election tool belts. More recently, the disdain has hit even closer to home -- like family living rooms and kitchen tables all over the state.
Despite angle upon angle, explanation after explanation -- the collective talk has been divisive, inflammatory, always passionate and many times, misinformed.
So WHNT News 19 decided to take action to elevate the Common Core conversation past all the politicized rhetoric to provide some real solutions for parents who like they are drowning in homework.
"I think at this point it's time to move on," says State School Board Representative Mary Scott Hunter -- a dedicated defender of Common Core Standards.
But a growing segment of folks who feel they can't just move on are parents -- particularly those of elementary and middle school students.
"My daughter does not have a math book," says Madison County parent Lei Peavy. "So I can't look in her book and see, this is where it's telling us how to do it. She doesn't have one, not even on the computer. And I just worry about what they're being taught."
You may have walked to school, uphill in the snow both ways. You may even have a masters or Ph.D., but the 'reading, writing and 'rithmetic' of yesteryear won't help these days when your student brings home a math worksheet. Standards are more rigorous, and that fourth grade long division problem isn't just taught as a process of divide, multiply, subtract and carry the remainder: It's taught so pupils understand why numbers behave the way they do. The goal is actual comprehension, not just memorization and repetition. But the 'Common Core way' seems to be causing undeniably uncommon ground. The great parent/student divide.
"One of the most frustrating things for parents, that I've seen is when the kids are bringing home lots of homework and they can't really help them in the way that they did it in class," concedes Madison County School Superintendent Matt Massey.
Tutor Phyllis Norton says much comes to mind when she hears the words, 'Common Core.' "I see some frustrated parents and I see some frustrated students," Norton says.
Norton is a former educator and current owner of Mathnasium in Huntsville. As a military mom, she's seen first hand the pros of Common Core when she moved her sons from California a few years back into a drastically different set of Alabama school standards. Norton says she's also familiar with the horror stories.
"First thing I tell the parent, is you're not alone. And I think them just hearing that, because they think they're the only ones sitting at that kitchen table for two and three hours a night; and they're not. And it's not necessarily a Common Core thing, it's just the way it is now," Norton says.
Madison County School Superintendent Matt Massey, a math teacher himself for many years, also has some perspective on the Common Core quandary.
"Our teachers have worked so hard and do the best they can. But when this rolled out, there really weren't any experts in it," Massey said. "I was part of the rollout team and I really didn't understand what this Common Core stuff was and it probably took me about two to three years to kind of even figure out, 'where are we coming from?' We need to take a step back, in my opinion, and really take a broad view and see what is the big picture here; and it's not about homework."
It seems there's been a learning curve for everyone, even teachers themselves. "We have taught ourselves, basically, how to work out those problems the Common Core way," explains Phyllis Norton.
Meanwhile, staunch opponents continue to call for a Common Core call-off. Local superintendents entertain new ideas -- like less homework, believe it or not. "If something is new and different, you know, don't kill them with homework. Work on that in the class time and really try to develop concepts," suggests Massey.
Progressive thinkers will tell you, bellyaching won't help your child's grades. But constructive communication just might.
"I would suggest that there be as much communication as possible. There's a lot of teachers that are out there willing to stay after school, to help more. Just letting the teacher know that you're engaged, your child is trying, it really does help," Norton assures.
"Instead of concentrating on your kid getting every single question right," Massey says, "do they understand what they're doing? Can they explain how they're doing something? And if they can do that, they're gonna be okay."
"This is the way it is," Norton reminds. "Right now there's really nothing we can do about it, to be honest with you. So, let's work with it. Let's make this the best that we can with our children. Whether you believe in it or you don't believe in it, you always want the best for your child."
Options for parents
Mathansium has two locations in the area at 2124 Cecil Ashburn Drive Suite 140, Huntsville AL 35802 and at 51 Nance Road, Suite 101, Madison AL 35758. You can reach the Huntsville campus at (256) 885-0886 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Prices start at $200 a month for elementary student and $225 for Algebra 1 and up. Both centers even offer a free tutoring trial so parents can try it out before they commit.
Appleton Learning is another great resource for parents.
Of course, we realize not everyone has the budget for private tutoring services. So here are some more affordable options:
The Huntsville Council of PTAs has compiled a bevy of Common Core resources for parents.
Also see additional Huntsville City Schools resources here.
Madison City Schools has recently expanded their 'parent university' concept and encourages parents to keep the lines of communication open with teachers.
Madison County Schools Superintendent Matt Massey agrees, saying one of the best resources for questions or concerns is your student's school principal.
There's even a Common Core Math for Parents -- For Dummies book (we didn't come up with the title.) You can buy the book inline for less than $10. A quick online search, though, will garner many other texts to help parents out.