Norwalk math specialist defends Common Core State Standards

This image was Tweeted by EnglishBelle in US, @English811
This image was Tweeted by EnglishBelle in US, @English811

NORWALK, Conn. – A photo that bounced its way across Twitter with the hash tag #commoncore #fail is not typical to what is going on in the schools, Norwalk Math Instructional Specialist Craig Creller said.

“Some of what you see on the Internet is isolated examples of bad teaching,” Creller said, when asked about a Facebook post that included the tweeted photograph at right. “The pattern there is doubles plus one. How do you make 11? The kid who can count by five can go, ‘Five and five is 10, oh, and one more: 11.’ That’s the theory behind it. ”

The Facebook post, which got a litany of angry comments, linked to an NBC Washington story about Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with the headline “2+2=What? Parents Rail Against Common Core Math.” Creller said the story itself was balanced as it described the national debate about CCSS, but said that, in Connecticut, the backlash is based on a misperception, tying CCSS to teacher evaluations. Misstatements are rampant, he said, as he explained that one of the ideas behind CCSS is to provide multiple techniques to children because each child is different.

“Some children can go 21, that’s three times seven, because they have it memorized,” Creller said. “Other kids will go seven and seven is 14, and seven more is 21. That’s one of the strategies that takes a beating in these Common Core critiques because the parents will say ‘Why can’t he memorize it?’ or ‘Why do you have to have all these other methods?’”

The answer? “Because they work,” he said.

Kids are developmentally different, he said. Some can’t sit still in their seats; some want to go to the bathroom every five minutes; some shout out instead of raising their hand, he said.

“Our kids come into our kindergarten with wildly different abilities,” he said. “The diversity of learners that walk into our schools goes from neo-genius to ‘I’ve never had anybody read to me.’ You have to be sensitive to developmental differences.”

Norwalk has been using CCSS for math for three years, he said. It’s working – the achievement gap is being narrowed, he said.

“What’s happening in Norwalk is the kids at the top are still at the top and they’re moving a little. We had kids this year, on the end-of-the-year benchmarks, 98’s, 100’s, we’ve never seen that,” Creller said. “So the kids at the top, they’re knocking it out of the park. But they’ve always been high, those are strong students. What we’re doing is we’re closing the bottom. What’s happening is we are taking that bottom half and really raising it. When I first came here, our very first benchmark, I think the difference between the lowest and highest performing school was 63 points on a benchmark. Some school got a 22 and some school got an 85. Now the lowest school is a 67 and the highest is still an 85. We are bringing up the bottom. You want to talk about closing the achievement gap? We are closing the achievement gap in Norwalk.”

Plus, the children in the lower grades, who have only known CCSS teaching, are doing significantly better, he said.

“What’s happening now in Connecticut is the backlash against the core – people have melded in their minds the teacher evaluation system with Common Core somehow. Those are two different things completely,” Creller said. “… If there was no Common Core there would be still be evaluations, just they would be tied to CMT (Connecticut Mastery Test). The two launched in the same year so they are sort of intertwined.”

Unions are panicking because, next spring, 45 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on test results, he said. This on top of teaching a more rigorous curriculum, he said.

Norwalk Math Instructional Specialist Craig Creller

“The Common Core is a good thing. What the teachers and the teachers unions don’t want is to be held accountable to their test in their performance evaluation. … Until 2014, what teacher in the state of Connecticut has ever been held accountable for test scores?”

That is why it is controversial and polarizing, he said.

“What I see is this year especially and this season, and this spring, are sort of myths and misconceptions about the core,” Creller said. “I have never seen this rampant sort of inaccurate statements. Not from you but people on Facebook, people on blogs, standing up in meetings and reading me things: I heard 15 states dropped out of the core. No, no, no, 46 states adopted the core. One state – Indiana – dropped out, and they formed their own standards which look identical to the real ones. The Tea Party is in control of Indiana, so the Tea Party says ‘we’re not participating in any government-sponsored takeover of education, we’re going to make our own standards.’ So they hired an independent consultant who said your standards are just like the real core.”

Connecticut used to be proud because the national standard for kindergarten mathematics was for children to be able to count to 20, and Connecticut children could count to 50, he said. The CCSS standard is for kindergarten children to count to 100 – by ones, fives and 10’s. They also have to know all of their two- and three-dimensional shapes and subtract to 20, he said.

“It’s the Grand Canyon of rigor divides. We’ve gone from counting to 20 to counting to 100. So nobody is going to question the rigor of it,” he said.

Parents may feel like they can’t help their children because math is being taught a different way, he said. But the schools are teaching kids math the old way and in four other ways, he said.

“In this country, not just Norwalk, we have been handing them a calculator in second grade. We have been robbing them of their math sense,” Creller said. “The Common Core has thrown down the gauntlet: You must learn to add and subtract in second. You must memorize your multiplication facts in third. We don’t just start Sept. 1 with memorization. We teach them, what is 14? It’s seven and seven. It’s repeated addition. What’s 21? It’s seven and seven and seven. Or 20 plus one. Repeated addition. We teach kids every way to get to 21 and then we also do flash cards for memorization. But what parents are saying is ‘why can’t they just memorize it?’ Because not every child can do that. Not every child, through poverty, abuse, simply lacking working memory, can memorize their times tables in September of third grade. So we teach them all these other strategies to get to the finish line.”


42 responses to “Norwalk math specialist defends Common Core State Standards”

  1. John Hamlin

    As usual, the protests aren’t about the kids but about the union representing the teachers. Eliminate the teachers union and everyone (except the union leaders and underperforming teachers) will benefit. Keep common core — ban the teachers union.

  2. Admo

    John Hamlin Is that all you got out of that article?? Tunnel vision

  3. EveT

    @John Hamlin, it sounds to me like the parents are more upset than the teachers. Parents who don’t understand that there can be several different thought processes that all lead to the correct answer. This is a more sophisticated way of approaching math, and that can feel threatening for parents who only learned it (or failed to learn it) by rote.

  4. MarjorieM

    Glad this administrator isn’t in charge of English. “Some children can go 21,” I had trouble following his statements. as for common core, I, for one, am still on the fence. Let’s see if test scores support it. (No flaming, please. I know he is a math administrator, not English. I think all administrators should be held to higher standards)

  5. Joe

    Mr. Creller is wrong. He’s making a big meal out of something we figured out 50 years ago. I’m living proof…memorizing, flash cards, pencil on paper. It was boring, I hated it but I learned it!

  6. One and Done.

    Obamacore. Plain and simple. This is designed to make our society even less efficient.
    Next they’ll tell you there is a better methodology instead of just memorizing the alphabet.
    This guy Creller is enjoying his run at soaking up more of our tax dollars in wasted efforts. Not one of these sycophants can tell you how memorization all of a sudden isn’t the most fundamental foundational skill in knowledge development. See Bloom’s Taxonomy.
    Google James Milgram. The only PhD mathematician involved in common core who refused to sign off on the standards. He claims that CC, if fully implemented will put children 2 years behind where they are now upon graduation.

  7. David

    I have children in Norwalk public schools and are going through the Common Core match program right now, and I am so glad they are. Yes, the program is harder, the standard is higher so that’s to be expected.
    What I like about the program is that it focuses on a lot of natural language applications of math and really gets into the anatomy of numbers.
    Pure memorization has its limits – you can remember what you’ve seen in the past, but you can’t reason what you haven’t been exposed to. That’s a key component to critical thinking.
    The rollout has been tough, teachers and parents feel overwhelmed, but I think everyone involved has done as good a job as possible, given the resources available.

  8. One and Done.

    David, memorization is only the beginning, BUT it is the beginning. This is why CC is doomed for failure because it moves to achieve higher orders of learning before basics have been mastered. Don’t leave your children behind. They will be left in the dust with the new system without outside guidance.
    We built societies and put men on the moon using the traditional methods and it didn’t cost $18k per student per year. Children need love and discipline. This is lacking now as most grow up either in single family homes or homes where both parents work to pay taxes for an ever growing government that serves itself first and constituents second.
    The most disturbing part about all of this is that the school systems have no contingency planning at all. What if this fails? Then what? Poorly run businesses manage risk, but it seems our government never does and the answer is always more and more money.

  9. Mr. Creller is doing a great job managing CC math across the entire school system. He believes in higher standards and deeper learning, and the test scores of the students who have been using GoMath (our K-5 Common Core math program) are already up noticeably in comparison to scores before GoMath was implemented.

    Joe, returning to ‘what worked 50 years ago’ is indeed a component of the Common Core. American education has been side-tracked into ineffective approaches that downgraded the importance of factual knowledge, and CC is correcting that.

    One and Done, this isn’t “Obamacore”; it is a state-developed (not Federal) approach that Obama joined as a ‘johnny come lately’. Memorization is making a comeback under CC; your statement “none of these sycophants can tell you how memorization all of a sudden isn’t the most fundamental foundational skill in knowledge development” seems to indicate you didn’t read the article, since Creller talks at length in it of the importance of memorization.

    I will forward Nancy some curriculum update materials from our April meeting for more background on CC implementation.

  10. One and Done.

    Well that would be welcome Mike, because it isn’t too transparent right now and it seems Creller is covering for a lack of memorization based curricula. On the surface of this story it does appear that children are being taught algebraic decomposition of finite numbers before they build their memories. Why can’t someone clearly refute this here instead of making excuses elsewhere? What if James Milgram is right and we don’t have any backup? Who pays?

  11. MarjorieM

    Mike Lyons comes charging in to rescue Craig C. Is this Nancy on Norwalk or Mike Lyons on Norwalk?

    1. Mark Chapman


      We strongly endorse those with the facts jumping in to explain things. We do it when we know what we are talking about. I do not presume to know anything about math. I would refer you to my ninth-grade Algebra teacher, but he recently passed. Who knows, I might have done better with Common Core…

  12. David

    To the contrary, the process has been incredibly transparent – Craig Creller has posted all manner of materials, including semester-by-semester curriculum breakdowns for parents, to see what their children are doing, and learning objectives : http://portal.norwalkps.org/curriculum/ccss/Pages/default.aspx

  13. One and Done.

    Sorry David, you grossly misunderstand what I am after here. The curricula are fine as posted and seemingly worthy goals.
    I am after what mathematicians and computer scientists call an algorithm. This is a bit more granular than what is posted anywhere (maybe part of a textbook?). For example, 32 minus 12. 2 minus 2 is zero and 3 minus 1 is 2, leaving 20.
    The snapshot above, and this isn’t the first time I have seen similar, seems to show an algebraic approach to the problem which looks like it is solved in at least 12 steps.
    It isn’t right or wrong, but I promise you in the real world that the person who can get things done more efficiently is going to get the job every time. The person who unnecessarily proliferates will need to find work in academia where results and accountability aren’t as important.

  14. David

    But I think you are confusing the end result with the process. Common core teaches you the “anatomy” of math, the ability to think in many different ways. Learning, and reciting, something from rote learning is great, if the answer is simple, obvious, and you’ve learned it before.
    But the best jobs aren’t simple and obvious – if they were, everybody would be doing them. Computer Programmers wouldn’t be earning 6 figure salaries. The high end, quality jobs require detailed analysis and critical thinking. Now, sure, you have to do the job as efficiently as possible, but you have to know how to break down complex problems first.

  15. MarjorieM

    Mark, I understand what you are saying. It’s just that Mike is all over these comments and all over opinion letters stating what a great job he and the superintendent are doing. Too much self aggrandizement usually means there’s something to worry about. Besides, why isn’t Creller defending himself Does he need Mike to do it for him? Why doesn’t the superintendent defend what has been accomplished? Why is it always Mike? And don’t talk transparancy. That is not what I am complaining about. Mike may be chairman of the Board, but he doesn’t have to be everyone’s Daddy. Sorry, Mike. You are a good guy, but going overboard…in my opinion. Let the so-called “experts” speak for themselves.

  16. LWitherspoon

    The many comments by Mike Lyons are always informative and grounded in fact. I applaud Mr. Lyons, who is a volunteer, for taking the time to add facts and insights to article related to education. If I may speak frankly, you would do well to follow Mr. Lyons’s example.

  17. One and Done.

    David, the process is the most important thing. Test results can always be put to subjective measures and they always have to justify budgets. I have grave concerns about the math angle. I think children who do not have the basics ingrained in the most efficient way possible will struggle mightily down the road. I also think it is a travesty that we have not mandated calculus as a graduation requirement. In fact there are no stated goals or outcomes for grade level 12. That is very concerning to me.
    I do agree Mike and the management team are doing great work here, but I’ve heard too many stories from elementary school parents that they don’t understand their children’s math homework. This isn’t rocket science. It should be readily understood by your average adult. Students who struggle with calculus, largely do because they don’t understand the underlying algebra. Students who struggle with algebra typically have weak arithmetic backgrounds. We’re not talking about a new store or night club, we are talking about our children. We must have fail safes. That there is no mention of any plan B tells me we don’t have one and that should cause everyone to pause for a moment.

  18. Marj, you post far more comments on NON than I do … you seem a bit obsessed with me.

    If I don’t explain what’s happening, I (and the Board) are attacked for being ‘secretive’ and non-‘transparent.’ If I enter into public discussion (under my own name, not a moniker, Marj), then Marj (but no one else I can see) attacks me for making comments and providing information.

    BTW, look at the articles in NON on the Norwalk schools … how many of them lead with Dr. Rivera’s photo and his comments vs. mine? It’s about 10-1, Marj. You express concern about my comments. I think its much more telling that you seem to be arguing for censorship of me (self-imposed or otherwise). In my experience, it is the people who want to shut other people up (rather than intelligently debate them) who are more “to worry about.”

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Mike Lyons

      For the record, we are quite pleased that you come here to explain things. We wish all the various board and commission leaders would do the same. It would be a valuable service to the community and a real serious step toward transparency. I would be quite happy to have Dr. Rivera drop by and share his thoughts, too.

  19. MarjorieM

    Mike, I am not obsessed with you. LOL I have, however disagreed with you at times, and have wanted greater transparency at other times. I recently wanted you to divulge more information about the superintendent’s true yearly salary. He not only makes $230,000 a year, but also collects an annual $30,000 annuity and his 3% raise. I truly don’t believe the taxpayers understood that. Next year, the superintendent stands to make $ 236,900 plus 3% plus $30,000 annuity plus a $50,000 bonus. I only comment when I believe there is more to the story than what is presented. I also admit that I intervene when an administrator’s grammar is so obviously unacceptable as is the case in this article. Perhaps I can be labeled a perfectionist, but I am not obsessed with you or anyone else. Shall we call this case closed? I’m ready.

  20. Well, happy to call it closed, but unfortunately you made some factual misstatements that I need to correct, Marj. You state “I recently wanted you to divulge more information about the superintendent’s true yearly salary. He not only makes $230,000 a year, but also collects an annual $30,000 annuity and his 3% raise. I truly don’t believe the taxpayers understood that.” First, he made (prior to his raise) $220,000 a year salary (not $230,000), plus the $30,000 annuity. Second, every superintendent since at least Ralph Sloan has gotten both salary and annuity, so this is nothing new with Rivera. Third, Susan Marks got a $30,000 annual annuity (the same as Rivera’s), though she was paid $200,000 base vs. $220,000 base for Rivera (under a contract awarded before I got on the Board). Fourth, a NON article on July 15 of last year clearly noted that the reported $250,000 salary was “actually $220,000, with $30,000 contributed to an annuity” (see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/07/lyons-new-norwalk-super-wont-be-best-paid-in-state; this was also reiterated in a July 17 article: https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/07/details-not-quite-worked-out-yet-for-new-norwalk-superintendent). Fourth, the annuity was also noted in a front-page Norwalk Hour article on August 20, 2013 (see http://www.thehour.com/news/norwalk/schools/board_of_education/new-schools-chief-finally-has-a-full-contract/article_fe9e23a6-821d-5f66-a879-e5d4b7ee1eca.html), which stated “Rivera … will be paid $220,000 with $30,000 to be put into [d]eferral accounts”. Finally, when we awarded Dr. Rivera his raise this month, NON corrected reported “Rivera … is paid a base rate salary of $220,000 plus a $30,000 annuity” (see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/06/norwalk-schools-super-given-raise-by-boe). If Norwalkers don’t know about Dr. Rivera’s annuity, it isn’t because of us — we’ve noted it repeatedly, online and in print.

  21. Anne Sullivan

    Parents who are confused about their child’s math homework could go to the Think Central website for additional support in either English or Spanish. It’s a great resource.

  22. TG

    I’m not necessarily a supporter of the whole CC, , but I understand the need for different approaches to get to have the basic knowledge (which is the first level of Bloom’s taxonomy- nowhere does knowledge=rote memorization.) Some kids will do just fine memorizing facts and some will be able to develop their own tricks to do so, others need help with strategies to break it down in their brains- and it will help them as they approach new material.

  23. MarjorieM

    Mike, I read all the articles and nowhere do I find that the annuity is a yearly deal. Did I miss that somewhere? Over and out……

    1. Mark Chapman


      Dr. Rivera’s contract is attached at the end of this article from July 15, 2013

  24. Oldtimer

    No two students starting out have developed the same skills but many may be able to solve simple math problems in their own way. CC seems to recognize that one size does NOT fit all, certain goals need to be reached by as many students as possible. It sounds like Mr Creller is saying the children at the lower end of achievement scales are moving up while the ones at the high end of the scale are staying there and the “gap” is shrinking under CC. That sounds like real progress in teaching math skills. I’ll bet the children at the low end of the scale have a better understanding of making change than we give them credit for, even if getting it down on paper is a problem. They count in terms of pennys, nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars. Converting their skills to numbers on paper is the primary challenge. Unfortunately, we do see people working cash registers who do not count, but rely on the register to tell them how much change to give back to a customer.

  25. Oldtimer, your reference to cash registers is apt. CC deliberately removes calculators from math teaching until kids develop a “math sense” (as Creller describes it) first. It adjusts to individual kids, but holds all of them to a rigorous knowledge of both memorized facts and problem-solving methods. We’re already seeing the positive results.

  26. MarjorieM

    Guess I didn’t think I would have to read a legal contract to get the facts in an article about his salary. Thanks for pointing it out, Mark. I never would have thought to look there. I wonder how many others didn’t either???

  27. Marj, the same facts about his salary were in the article (and all the other articles I cited).

  28. Suzanne

    Just like illiteracy, innumeracy is cause for concern not only for elementary school children but for that young person behind the cash register.
    Try living through an earthquake, going to a store to buy needed supplies and finding out that, without electricity, the cash registers don’t work and the cashier cannot do the basic math to give change. It doesn’t take an earthquake, either. I have seen it here with power outages.
    Basic math skills require many approaches as Mr. Crellar describes. However the students get there, there is no question that numeracy is as important as literacy and must be mastered to function successfully in our culture.
    Those that don’t have these skills, and I do not believe this to be an assumption in the proverbial sense, will not be able to reach their potential in our culture.
    I say, if Common Core works for these children who are different in their abilities and backgrounds and are, in fact, showing progress, then use it.
    Meantime, Ms.M., if you don’t like Mr. Lyons so much, why don’t you write him directly to wage your war of comments? Somehow, you migrated from Common Core and Math, which this article is about, to Mr. Rivera’s salary and benefits. You do a disservice to the concerns of this conversation.

  29. Kathleen Montgomery

    One and done, you are wrong. Memorization is procedural learning and involves learning processes or algorithms by rote. Real mathematical learning, learning that is deeply understood and meaningfully retained, does not begin with memorization at all. It begins with conceptual understanding and then algorithms are presented and actually understood by students. Conceptual learning involves understanding the concepts and meanings underlying the operations as opposed to merely applying rules. Students know WHEN to use the algorithm and WHY. This is pretty valuable. The mathematicians who put the men on the moon had this same understanding or we may have well landed people on Mars.

    I know parents are frustrated and perhaps it is because of the decades of rote-based mathematics instruction most of us experienced. But, as one of the posters pointed out, help is out there and the schools are guiding parents to the right places.

  30. MarjorieM

    Interesting that you blame me, Suzanne. I was the one accused of being obsessed with Mike Lyons.i was defending myself. Initially, my comments here were clearly focused on the quotes from the math administrator.

  31. Kathleen Montgomery

    My two cents: Marjorie M it makes for a long read when 7 of your comments are off topic. I add this for 2 reasons: 1) It is difficult to follow the discussion when off topic items are added and 2) I greatly appreciate Mike’s willingness to respond and clarify issues pertaining to education and do not want him to rethink doing.

    Nothing personal…your on topic comments are well-thought through.

  32. One and Done.

    Kathleen Montgomery just rewrote decades and millions of hours of research. Because she says it, it is so. Bloom’s Taxonomy be darned. She has just written a new paradigm for how learning is achieved. Forget what the 1000s of graduate programs in the world hold out as the working theory. Instead of memorizing numbers, basic addition/subtraction, and multiplication/division we should move straight into symbolic logic and abstract algebra by her logic.

  33. Suzanne

    Yes, that’s true, Ms. M. All I am asking is that you stay focused. Like Ms. Montgomery, I find some of your comments insightful with good questions. But, when your comments devolve to a personal level with Mr. Lyons, the rest of us have to slog through nonconforming to the topic comments that are not very useful. I really don’t care who said what about whom, Common Core Math is the topic and Common Core math should stay the topic. If you want to talk with Mr. Lyons or defend yourself, do it somewhere else, please. I am only making this comment because this seems to be an ongoing dialogue that has reached its limit and is very tiresome. Common Core in general is a worthwhile discussion especially since it concerns how our children learn now and into the future.

  34. Kathleen Montgomery

    One and Done: I’m not going to find the research for you but will advise you that it is there in proliferation and has been for a couple of decades…long before that if you read the early theorists. Plus, you didn’t paraphrase my view correctly at all. Let’s agree that you can either look at the research or retain your rote learning model.

  35. One and Done.

    Yes Kathleen, it’s called Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is the most widely held and accepted theory of learning progression. Memorization is foundational to all higher levels of learning. You can’t point to your research that countermands that because it doesn’t exist. You made it up out of thin air.
    I think Mike et. al. have appropriately addressed some of the concerns. I still have yet to see anyone clearly articulate a contingency plan. Please allow me to play devil’s advocate here until someone can articulate what the fallback is if this fails. We didn’t have one for NCLB and we should have at least learned that we should have one. This should cause everyone to pause for at least a moment. What if it is a wrong approach? You can’t claim you care about children and their educational outcomes and simply dismiss this at the same time.

  36. Kathleen Montgomery

    One and Done (why are you not using your actual name):

    First and foremost, your libelous statement that I “made it up out of thin air” is very unfortunate for you. Please know that I take your statement with the utmost seriousness and you should apologize publicly or provide the facts showing that I am dishonest.

    I will take a LAST shot at you informing yourself on the matter as well as attempting to ensure that people reading your misunderstandings will be better informed. Bloom’s Taxonomy was written in 1956. The revised taxonomy was written in 2001. The word memorization was not even used once in either taxonomy.

    Having said that, you need to read the current research on constructivism, inductive reasoning, critical thinking and other methods used in universities as well as the revised taxonomy. This will allow you to answer your own questions in addition to paying attention to the explanations provided in the article.

  37. One and Done.

    Kathleen Montgomery, you left me to do my own research. You couldn’t actually cite a specific source, so I can only conclude you have none. I now point you to a thesaurus for words meaning memorization and a dictionary for the definition of libel. Hilarious, you are.

  38. Lisa Len

    Here’s a new math question – why has Phase Obe and Phase Two math in middle school been combined into one class? How is that going to benefit the stronger math students? Why aren’t the stronger math students getting stronger, why are they staying there? Hint – they’re not being challenged…. The only students this benefits is the weaker students because the teacher can’t go on effectively without mastering of skills by the students. Oh and let’s not forget Algebra last year without a textbook that follows the curriculum. That was very useful when the students need help with homework !!!

  39. Norwalk Parent

    “The Common Core is a good thing. What the teachers and the teachers unions don’t want is to be held accountable to their test in their performance evaluation. … Until 2014, what teacher in the state of Connecticut has ever been held accountable for test scores?”

    This quote is personally outrageous and embarassing to me. Standardized test scores are time and time again shown to be unreliable, invalid, and a poor measure of student achievement or teacher efficacy. The fact that my son and his teachers could be judged by test scores is in my opinion and embarassment and lack of sense of reality. While Mr. Creller makes many good points and is mostly on the money throughout the article, it is downright frightening that the head of math instruction has this kind of opinion of math teachers. I think teachers do not want to be held “accountable” for something that in no way accurately reflects the job they do.

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