Meadow Homes 4th Graders Embrace Common Core Standards

The Common Core State Standards have roiled state legislatures across the country and frustrated some parents. But what do kids think of them? We visit a school in California's Bay Area to find out.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's hear more about the testing that begins well before students are even thinking about applying for college. This is actually testing season in plenty of grade schools around the country. And many states are testing new standards called the Common Core. California is one of them. Common Core has come under fire from some parents and educators who complain the tests can be confusing. NPR's education team wondered what children think of it, and they sent Youth Radio's Myles Bess to an elementary school in the San Francisco Bay area.

MYLES BESS, BYLINE: I graduated high school in 2012, so I missed out on the Common Core. But when I went to Meadow Homes Elementary, I was curious. What's all the hype about? Passing the play structures and the drawings on the wall, I got nostalgic for grammar school. Then I met principal Mary-Louise Newling and got a reality check.

PRINCIPAL MARY-LOUISE NEWLING: I find the math to be eye-opening. I guess I was shocked. I think all of my teachers were taken aback when we actually attempted the test.

BESS: Newling likes the Common Core but admits it's a big transition. The standards require students to explain their work in writing, even in math. That's complicated when 80 percent of her school is English-language learners. Just when I thought I couldn't be more intimidated by the Common Core, I met the students - a bunch of lovely fourth-graders.

Do you guys know what the Common Core is?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

BESS: Is it hard?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: Sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 3: Sometimes.

BESS: These kids aren't scared at all by the Common Core. In fact, they wanted to spend the whole afternoon doing math problems with me, showing me strategies. First, the box method for multiplication.

SAVANNA BURRIS: I like this way because you can understand it more than the way - it's just easier because you get to break it up.

BESS: Savanna Burris starts scribbling on my notebook with the kids gathered around. Here's the problem - 8 times 14.

BURRIS: We draw a box and - for a two digit number, you can break it up. So 8 times 14 - 14 is really 10 plus 4.

BESS: It's hard to explain for radio, but try breaking down a multiplication problem into two simpler problems. Why do 8 times 14 when you can do 8 times 10 and 8 times 4 and add the two products?

BURRIS: And so you can just add 80 plus 32. You get a 112.

BESS: Oh, I get it.

(LAUGHTER)

BESS: Well, this is how I was taught to do it, and it's clearly not as cool as this. So 14 times 8, right? So what's 8 times 4? 32, right?

They didn't like my way at all. The division was even harder than the multiplication. And again, these fourth-graders used a method I'd never heard of - the hangman method. It's also hard to explain but not hard to get an answer from Gabriella Morris (ph).

GABRIELLA MORRIS: 24, remainder 4, is the answer.

BESS: Well, your teacher just gave me the thumbs up so you got it right. I'm still confused. So is it hard, like, when you guys take homework home and you try to have your parents help you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 4: No.

BESS: Why?

PAULINA MUNOZ: Because it's not, like, really that hard for me. So I don't really need help from my mom and dad.

BESS: That was Paulina Munoz (ph). I still wasn't convinced. Why were these kids so excited about this approach to math that feels like a lot more work? I asked their fourth-grade teacher, Jessica Beerbaum.

JESSICA BEERBAUM: They're stuck at first, and sometimes they're stuck at first with describing. We've gone away again from A, B, C or D being the right answer or teaching an algorithm to approach a mathematical issue. So we have to get away from that easy answer thing.

BESS: Ten fourth graders in Concord, Calif., don't speak for everyone. And that one kid who didn't say much, she might hate the Common Core. But as many adults across the country struggle with the new standards, these kids seem surprisingly eager and willing to embrace something new. For NPR News, I'm Myles Bess.

You guys have taught me something.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 5: Boom.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 6: Yes, and you're older than us.

BESS: I'm proud. I like to learn. This is fun.

STUDENT 5: Boom.

STUDENT 6: Math power.

GREENE: Math power - just what you want to hear from a kid. That story was produced by Youth Radio. This is NPR News.

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