Photos of wrinkled worksheets fill the CommonCoreCA Facebook page. “Please help, I know none of this is right,” one caption reads. “I don’t get why they are doing the math this way,” says another. A third is more succinct: “Um … What???”
The community group’s 121 parents are confused by their children’s homework, and they’re not alone. Common Core standards have thrown some politicians, teachers and – most of all -- parents and students in 43 states for a loop. They can’t figure out the new methods for reading and doing math, and time is running out: Both subjects appear on standardized tests scheduled to be given this month. In a last-ditch effort to prepare their kids, more and more parents are turning to tutoring, boosting private education companies across the country.
“Our number of calls coming in to enrollment counselors has gone up more than 50 percent this school year,” said Norman Drexel, president of REACH Professional In-Home Tutoring in Chino Hills, California. “We’re hearing just about every call, ‘Common Core.’ ‘Common Core.’ ‘Common Core.’”
Common Core is a national set of education benchmarks that determine what K-12 students should know and be able to do at each grade level, according to its website. Most states agreed to fully adopt Common Core by this year and base their annual spring tests on the standards, which critics argue are not only different but also more difficult.
In an effort to better prepare students for the workforce, Common Core emphasizes critical thinking. English language arts standards require them to read complex informational texts and write short responses as opposed to answering just multiple-choice questions. Math lessons discourage the use of traditional memory tricks like Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, instead focusing on the process of problem-solving. This often involves drawing dozens of dots and relying on diagrams -- foreign concepts to parents who learned completely different methods decades ago.
The issue erupted on social media last April when comedian Louis C.K. tweeted a picture of his third-grader's homework and wrote, "My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry." That same month, Stephen Colbert did a segment making fun of homework problems like "Jack used the number line below to solve 427-326. Find his error. Then write a letter to Jack telling him what he did right and what he should do to fix his mistake."
Parents want to support their children but don’t understand Common Core methodology. So they’re asking for help. “For tutoring companies, it’s been great,” said Drexel, who created the CommonCoreCA Facebook homework help group for parents of California students. Between 3 and 9 p.m. -- prime after-school hours -- parents can post their questions and get a free response from a tutor.
Tutoring companies across the nation are seeing a similar growth in demand because of the new Common Core tests. More than 1,000 people have visited ThatTutoringGuy.com’s Common Core page since Jan. 1, said marketing and curriculum developer Julie Hoskin in Santa Monica, California. In Texas, TestingMom.com has seen a spike in traffic as parents search for details about the new standards.
Bige Doruk, founder and CEO of Bright Kids NYC, said interest in her tutoring service has tripled over the past few years because parents have heard the Common Core tests are harder than before. Bright Kids NYC has seen in particular an uptick in fourth and seventh grade clients, Doruk said, because test scores from those years determine children’s chances of admission to the city’s elite middle and high schools.
The transition from old methods to new ones can especially trip up older students and their parents, Doruk said. For example, her kindergarten daughter has had an easier time than her fifth-grade son because he had to switch how he learned halfway through elementary school.
Common Core has prompted Doruk and other tutoring companies to put together special programs for students struggling with the standards. Bright Kids NYC started working on Common Core-specific materials three years ago and this year launched writing classes for students wrestling with the stricter English language arts requirements. ThatTutoringGuy.com plans to start offering statistics lessons to cover the new standards.
Aristotle Circle, also in New York City, developed its own Common Core practice exams for grades 3 through 8. They sell for $59 apiece. “People were just hungry for information,” said Aristotle Circle’s CEO and founder, Suzanne Rheault, adding that practice materials give parents an idea of how their child might actually perform. “Even a parent who’s fairly calm and feels confident about a school’s ability, if they receive a test score that’s a failing grade, they’re going to ask, ‘What’s happening here?’”
Rheault’s books highlight the difference between Common Core and traditional methods so parents and students can follow along. The practice exams pinpoint areas of concern, but Rheault said a lot of tutoring time is spent teaching kids how to take the tests. Aristotle Circle, like other tutoring companies, develops strategies to show them how to manage anxiety, pace themselves and make educated guesses.
Tutor.com's online instructors have a similar strategy. They encourage students to stay calm, even if they get the answer wrong. "What we’re trying to do is help build their confidence in their ability to do it,” said Joan Rooney, Tutor.com’s vice president of instruction.
Larger test prep companies have only recently begun to get involved in the student side of Common Core. Kaplan has a CoreSuccess program that’s integrated into its Teach! Strategies and Resources toolkit for teachers, according to spokeswoman Carina Wong, and it's focusing on producing materials for the Common Core-aligned new SAT due out in 2016. The Princeton Review is developing a series of Common Core-aligned test prep books for math and English language arts.
Even with the extra help, Common Core has resulted in many youngsters feeling defeated and parents feeling stupid, said Nicki Hensley, president of the parent-teacher organization at Manatee Elementary in Viera, Florida. Her third-grader, Lilly, goes to tutoring at least three times a week -- mostly to work on homework she and her husband can't solve.
Hensley said she doesn't care about the score Lilly gets on this year's tests. She just wants her daughter to do her best and believe in herself. "I don't know a child right now that isn't receiving some kind of academic support," Hensley said. "It's not so they can get the best grade. It's so that they can survive."