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Education | News | Class Of 2025: Follow Students From 1st Grade To Graduation

Common Core Math Requires New Approaches


Jason, a second-grader at Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland, looks at the numbers on his worksheet: 946-199.

He studies his fingers and comes up with the answer: 747. 

Jason breaks his pencil in the process, but he gets it right. Welcome to the new second-grade math. 

Second graders in the past rarely made it to three-digit addition and subtraction.

Second grade teacher Deb McGowan in her classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland

Second grade teacher Deb McGowan in her classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland

Rob Manning/OPB

“When we were going through our curriculum, it was way at the end,” says Deb McGowan, who teaches second grade at Earl Boyles. “Generally, we never got there.”  

The new Common Core standards expect students to do more complicated arithmetic and solve problems in multiple ways. That often means using a variety of exercises to visualize the numbers fingers, number lines, little tiles.

Josh draws dots, lines and squares to represent the ones, tens and hundreds and then crosses some off as he subtracts. It’s the “place value” method.

“Everybody loves place value, because you get to write boxes and lines and dots to count up how much you need, or how much you want,” Josh says.  

OPB’s Class of 2025 started following Josh’s cohort at Earl Boyles when they were kindergarteners. Some kids have left.  

Sam’s family moved from Portland to Springfield. His class at Centennial Elementary also uses that place value method, but Sam knows a twist. He draws nine lines on the white board, to represent 90. Then he circles five of them. Sam’s teacher, Kristin Foster, helps him explain.  

“What do you know about when we see groups of five like that?” Foster asks Sam. “What is the brain able to do?”

Sam replies, “It can only see five …”

“Without what?” Foster asks.

“Without having to count,” Sam says.

Centennial Elementary and Earl Boyles have something else in common. The second-grade teachers found the same rhyme to help kids analyze the top and bottom numbers in a subtraction problem: “More on top, no need to stop. More on the floor, go next door and get 10 more.” 

But math isn’t the same in every second grade room. Kalani left Earl Boyles Elementary for Irvington K-8 in Northeast Portland. Her class isn’t doing three-digit subtraction yet. Word problems are a big focus.

Kalani reads math problems at her home in North Portland.

Kalani reads math problems at her home in North Portland.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

As Kalani reads a word problem to the class, students head to their tables. They’re supposed to use a specific method.  Teacher Shyla Piper has to remind them.  

“Our goal today says we will practice using the algorithm for addition with base-ten pieces,” Piper tells the class. “It is not a choice, and I was very clear about that.”  

Piper says math is a bit of a struggle. She says the curriculum had to be adjusted to match Common Core, and it’s tough to work with. But she says there’s a more fundamental problem.  

“With Common Core math standards, I don’t think they’re developmentally appropriate for a lot of kids,” Piper says.

She says 7- and 8-year-olds can’t always visualize big numbers. “But then we’re asking them to do math with numbers to a thousand so even if they get the right answer, they don’t always know what they’re doing, why it works, why they have the right answer.”

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

Kalani says she doesn’t like math. It’s hard. But she likes word problems.     

“Other things like fractions and multiplication, I’m not so good at that,” Kalani says. “But when it comes to, like, fun math activities and stuff, I’m, like, ‘Yay! I get to do fun math!’”  

And that’s teachers’ challenge, wherever they are turning “hard math” into “fun math.”

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