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January 11, 2020

How to Talk to Parents about the New Math

A grandfather sat across from me, totally exasperated as he pleaded with me to help him with “this new math.” He was desperate to help his granddaughters but couldn’t figure out the Common Core methodology. And he wasn’t alone. He was one of the many caretakers who broached this subject on a regular basis with me as an elementary school principal. Even now that I’m retired, I still hear families moan about the new math and how they just don’t understand it.

When Common Core was adopted years ago, it sent many into a frenzy. However, even though many districts have turned away from these standards, they still offer many great foundations and best practices in math instruction.

So how do you talk to parents about “new” math? I’ve studied Common Core and other methods of math instruction extensively, and through that research, I found ways to calm people’s fears and provide explanations they could understand and accept. Here are my tips for helping families understand “new” math so they can support their children at home.

Math Reasoning

Begin by assuring families that they do not have to fear this “new” math. It’s not that it is “new,” but only “different” than how they (we) were taught. Most adults learned one way to solve problems. We were never told why we did certain things; it was just a matter of following sets of rules. We did it that way simply because that’s how we were taught.

Parents will begin to feel better and open up when you explain that we are teaching students to understand the “why” behind the rules they learned growing up. It’s helpful to use a basic skill, like subtracting, as an example when you’re talking to them. You might explain that we’re teaching why students have to borrow from the tens or hundreds column, and you might even use manipulatives and visuals to deepen the explanation.

When you give parents examples like this, you’re modeling what their students are learning in class while also teaching them about math reasoning. Understanding “why” leads to understanding how to solve problems and knowing which strategies, methods, and tools to use.

Problem Solving

In the math world, “problem solving” used to be synonymous with word problems. However, it’s important for parents to understand that problem solving extends far beyond word problems. Under Common Core, students learn multiple ways to solve any problem, using reasoning to demonstrate their understanding. That way, if students struggle with the simple algorithm method (which is how we learned to solve calculations), they’ll have different strategies to arrive at the same answer, such as using an array or visually breaking the problem into parts.

The broader principle here is that being a good problem solver is more important than memorizing a specific rule or method. We use problem solving in every part of life, so once students learn to be good problem solvers, they will be better equipped to look for answers in a variety of ways. Once parents understand you’re teaching students these valuable skills through mathematics, they’re more likely to be on board.


How many times have you heard people complain about children relying too much on calculators? This complaint always fascinates me, especially when I see adults pull up an app on their smartphones for simple calculations. Parents need to know that tools are a good and valid part of mathematics, and that they come in many forms: pencil and paper, calculators, rulers, graph paper, etc.

Tools offer support and efficiency, and they give students different ways to explore equations and make sure they’ve arrived at the correct answer. Assure parents that using tools is just one more way their child is learning to problem solve.

Real-Life Connections

Finally, it’s important to help families understand the importance of making authentic connections to math and how they can support these connections at home. Parents can integrate computation skills into everyday life in a variety of ways. For example, depending on their child’s grade level and ability, parents might ask him or her to:

  • Add up prices when buying items at the store or online.
  • Calculate prices for discounted items.
  • Estimate the price of filling the family car with gas.
  • Measure and convert fractions while cooking.
  • Measure and estimate the materials required for a remodeling project.

Once parents catch the vision for how to help students make authentic connections, they will better appreciate the need for different methods of math instruction.

Not New, But Different

Although there are many more facets to math instruction, these basic premises will help parents understand your methodology—without getting overwhelmed. Plus, if you can provide examples to support your explanations, they will more readily lower their defenses and accept what you have to say.

Remember, parents and guardians aren’t experts on math instruction, and they don’t need to be; that’s your job! But your job will be much easier if you help alleviate their fears, misperceptions, and misunderstandings about this “new math.”

In the end, your mission is to help families embrace this idea: It’s not “new” math; it’s thinking about math in a different way—a better way.


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