Common Core @ Home: Math - How does the Common Core affect students with learning disabilities?

Part Eight of a continuing series

Jeff Suzuki teaches mathematics at Brooklyn College, and is one of the founders of the Mid-Hudson Valley Math Teachers Circle, a group of teachers, professors, and mathematics aficionados working to promote mathematics education in the Hudson Valley.

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Dear Jeff, How will the Common Core affect students with learning disabilities?

On Jan. 8, 2002, then-President Bush signed into law the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB), which mandated that school systems be held accountable for ensuring that all children meet the same “challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards.”

Thus regardless of whether a state uses the Common Core State Standards or some local product, NCLB requires that all students, including those with learning disabilities, meet those standards.

To see how the Common Core might affect students with learning disabilities, let’s consider multiplication. For decades, children learned multiplication by memorizing facts like 7 × 6 = 42, and showed their mastery by how they performed on timed practice drills.

But “drill makes little, if any, contribution to growth in quantitative thinking by supplying maturer ways of dealing with numbers.” This attack on drill comes not from a supporter of the Common Core, but from a research study published in 1935! One characteristic of the Common Core approach to mathematics education is an emphasis on quantitative thinking with a goal of developing “maturer ways of dealing with numbers.”

This is accomplished through a focus on strategy instruction. Thus, rather than memorizing 7 × 6 = 42 and recalling it when necessary, students treat 7 × 6 as a problem to be solved. This requires an understanding of what 7 × 6 means: in this case, it is the sum of seven 6s. With this understanding, students can solve the problem in a number of ways: for example, they might add seven 6s to get 42; or they might remember from a previous lesson that six 6s is 36, so seven 6s is 36 + 6 = 42; or they might remember that 7 × 3 = 21, so 7 × 6 is twice that: 42.

The important question then becomes: Are students with learning disabilities better off with memorization and drill, or strategy instruction?

One particularly intriguing study, done in Washington state in 2004, looked at fourth graders in a Washington state elementary school. The study included 15 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in mathematics on the basis of a diagnosed learning disability. The students were randomly assigned to one of two intervention groups. In one, students were taught using a traditional, drill-oriented curriculum. In the other, students were taught using an integrated approach that combined strategy instruction with suitable drills. Both groups were then tested on a variety of tasks.

First, both groups of students did equally well on multiplication problems they had been exposed to. However, the strategy-based group did significantly better at applying their knowledge to new situations. Thus, while both groups of students could answer questions like “What is 7 × 6?” with equal proficiency, the strategy-based group could apply what they had been taught to solve related problems like “What is 70 × 6?” or “Approximate 72 × 6” much more effectively than the students using the traditional, drill-based curriculum. In effect, the strategy-based approach better prepares students for the next level of mathematics.

Other researchers report similar results: students with learning disabilities reach comparable levels of performance, regardless of whether they are exposed to a traditional curriculum or a strategy-based curriculum like that of the Common Core. But students exposed to a strategy-based curriculum are better prepared to continue their study of mathematics.

The preparation for a continued study of mathematics is critical, for studies show that the number and level of mathematics courses taken in school has a significant positive impact on future earnings, even after socioeconomic status and educational attainment are taken into account. Thus, if our only concern is how well students do on standardized state tests, the curriculum itself makes little difference. But if we want to prepare our children for life after testing, the common core approach to mathematics gives them a better foundation for their future.

The Washington state study, “Developing Automaticity in Multiplication Facts:Integrating Strategy Instruction with Timed Practice Drills” (John Woodward, Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Fall, 2006), pp. 269-289).

Another study comparing the effects of strategic instruction with appropriate drills for learning disabled students is “The Effects of Strategic CountingInstruction, with and without Deliberate Practice, on Number Combination Skillamong Students with Mathematics Difficulties” (Lynn Fuchs, Sarah Powell, et al, Learn Individ Differ. 2010 April 1; 20(2): 89–100).

Some insight into the debate over the value of drill can be found in Brownell and Chazal's “The Effects of Premature Drill in Third-Grade Arithmetic,” The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Sep., 1935), pp. 17-28, which can be found at

Common Core material is available at EngageNY under a Creative Commons non-commercial license: in effect, school districts can use the materials free of charge, as long as they attribute the material correctly.