# Confused by your kid’s math homework? The subject has changed in surprising ways.

Math might be a constant in school, but how it’s taught has changed dramatically in recent years. One primary motivation for those changes—including the 2010 passage of the Common Core math educational standards—is to prepare students for a more unpredictable and complex future.

However, for many parents, helping their kids with homework has become daunting, as modern methods seem unfamiliar from what they learned in school. A 2021 survey showed more than half of parents feel hopeless when trying to help their kids with homework. So, how is today’s math different—and why is it so essential for tomorrow’s society?

## Shifting the focus to understanding, not just answers

Common Core represents the first time a comprehensive set of math standards is being taught across the United States, says Maria Klawe, president of Math for America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping math and science teachers.

Klawe says these standards don’t just focus on formulas and equations. Common Core math emphasizes “problem-solving, collaboration, and embedding concepts in real-life examples,” she says.

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Mostly gone are the days when teachers would lecture at the front of the classroom while students quietly took notes. Now, teachers present a few concepts, and then students work together to solve problems in different ways, Klawe says.

The goal? Helping kids develop skills they’ll need to navigate a world filled with challenges—like climate change, pandemics, and geopolitical conflicts, says Dawoun Jyung, a middle school math teacher at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City.

“Our world is becoming more and more complex,” she says, adding that students need different mathematical tools to succeed.

Before Common Core math, “answers were valued over process,” says Jyung. Students were taught to follow rigid, step-by-step methods to obtain the correct answer, but these didn’t necessarily make sense to them. But when that approach is used, “students are unable to apply the concepts to real-world problems or unable to solve very highly complex math problems,” she says.

Under Common Core, the focus has shifted. Now, even mistakes are part of the learning process. “When students make a mistake or they struggle, [parents] see it as a negative thing,” Jyung says. “As math educators, we believe in productive struggle, like struggling is actually good. That’s where learning happens.”

## New standards in action

While the newer standards are designed to give students the tools they need to thrive, parents are often left scratching their heads. They may feel confused or frustrated about how to help their kids with math homework using methods that diverge so greatly from those used when they were learning math.

Danilsa Fernandez, a high school math teacher in New York City, has two children a decade apart in age, and she’s seen firsthand how much math instruction has changed. “The way that certain math problems are posed has changed quite a bit, and if I compare it to the way I learned math, it’s still different,” she says.

For instance, while helping her son with fifth-grade math homework, Fernandez was surprised to see him working on a division-related word problem. This approach was a significant shift from her own experience, where division was taught algorithmically—through a series of repetitive steps to reach a final answer. “The fact that he had a word problem and then worked out the division problem in a different method was mind-boggling to me,” she says.

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Even though Fernandez is a math teacher, she still finds herself learning from her son’s homework. Other parents, particularly those who don’t work in education, may feel clueless about how to move forward. “I think it’s a little bit unnerving,” she says. “It’s very difficult for them to carry on and help their kids, because they didn’t learn the math that way.”

Fortunately, parents don’t have to navigate these changes alone. Many schools offer tutoring, and libraries provide homework help both online and in person. Klawe recommends accessing “mathematical learning materials available on the web,” such as Illustrative Mathematics.

Still, the transition can be challenging. Fernandez sees Common Core’s potential but stresses the need for more teacher training, especially after setbacks from COVID-19.

A 2021 study found that while math scores initially improved under Common Core, the benefits were uneven—economically advantaged students saw gains, but financially disadvantaged students did not. In contrast, a 2019 federally funded report revealed that states needing major adjustments to adopt the new standards experienced a slight decline in 8th-grade math performance.

The change has been noticeable for Jyung, who started teaching three years before Common Core was implemented, especially in standardized testing. “The questions are definitely more rigorous,” she says, adding that there’s been a shift from exclusively multiple-choice tests to more diverse formats, like prompts asking for short answers.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, is the way students tackle problems. Instead of just a handful of methods, Jyung now sees students using various strategies to solve problems—giving them the freedom to choose the best approach.

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