BROOKLYN — When it comes to helping their kids with homework, math has long proved challenging for some New York City parents.
But the subject become a greater source of stress for parents trying to help their children ever since the Common Core standards changed the way math is taught in public schools.
“My hair got whiter and whiter when Common Core math came in,” said Veronica Millender, a secretary from the Castle Hill area of The Bronx who frequently watches her 13-year-old granddaughter from Bensonhurst and helps the eighth grader with her homework.
For years, Millender has sought help from Dial-a-Teacher, the United Federation of Teacher’s homework hotline, calling it weekly since her granddaughter was in third grade. Millender also used the hotline, which started in 1980, with her grandson, now 20 — though perhaps not as frequently.
She is not alone in being confounded by the Common Core approach to teaching math, which became the norm in 2010.
Math has always been the subject most students call about, according to hotline data the UFT crunched for DNAinfo. But the subject has taken up a growing proportion of all calls, rising over the past 30 years from nearly half of all queries to about three-quarters of the 60,000 annual calls.
“Calling these competent, patient people to teach me so I can teach my granddaughter has been the experience of a lifetime. I can’t remember my own house number, I know the [hotline] number by heart, in my sleep," Millender said.
“The math is totally different than what I remember," she continued. "The way we would do simple adding or subtracting or multiplying — they don’t want to do it that way anymore."
The adding, subtracting, multiplying and division that many parents grew up learning now involves a different approach, where kids have to understand how numbers relate to each other. So for instance, instead of simply subtracting 849 from 906, you’d need to show that you can see that 849 is one less than 850 and that 850 is 56 less than 906, which can help you mentally process the answer of 57.
Millender first learned about the hotline, which is open Monday through Thursday, when attending an annual parent conference in her borough organized by the UFT. She often calls shortly after the hotline goes live at 4 p.m., when the wait time is shortest, she said, making sure her last questions are in before the hotline closes at 7 p.m.
Roger Miller, a 13-year veteran teacher, who teaches algebra and physics at Murray Bergtraum in Lower Manhattan, has been working at the hotline for four years and has noticed the growing frustration among parents when it comes to math.
"A lot of parents are used to treating numbers as objects. We're now trying to get the kids to visualize the numbers," Miller said. "Parents have their way of doing things, and we're trying to help. What we try to do is calm the parent down. We try to help the parent understand the shifts in the Common Core."
First time callers sometimes stay on the phone for about 20 minutes, Miller said, but hopefully subsequent calls are shorter.
"We spend a lot of time, especially with first time callers. We tell them you can call back 100 times afterward — and they do," said Miller.
He noted that this time of year tends to be busiest, right before the May state math exams for the city's third through eighth graders, who often have questions about review packets for the tests.
And while the bulk of the calls are from city students, who sometimes call long distance when they're on vacation, the hotline gets calls from out-of-state students, as well, from states like Georgia, Michigan and Indiana, Miller said.
The helpline began as a small pilot program with five teachers covering 17 schools in eight districts, according to the UFT. It’s grown to 45 teachers answering calls from across the city in nine languages, including Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali, helping with everything from reading comprehension to science fair projects.
Fourth and fifth graders consistently make the most calls to the dial-a-teacher homework hotline, the UFT found. These two grades are responsible for about 40 percent of all calls.
Alexis Hernandez, a first grade teacher at Park Slope’s P.S. 118, said math homework was a sticking point for many families at the Fourth Avenue school.
“Kids are doing math differently,” Hernandez said. “Kids get frustrated and adults were getting frustrated.”
Her school is trying to tamp down the homework woes for kids and their parents. Last year, P.S. 118 decided to ditch traditional homework in favor play-based learning, like through dancing, cooking and making up science experiments, that kids can do while spending time with their families at home.
In 2015 Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a “total reboot” of the Common Core math standards and convened a task force to work on the changes, but the changes announced at the start of this school year mostly involved tweaks rather than changes to the standards’ broad concepts, according to reports.
The UFT's Dial-a-Teacher hotline, 212-777-3380, is available Monday through Thursday, 4-7 p.m.
What: Homework help line for elementary and middle school students, run by classroom teachers
Hours: Monday—Thursday, 4—7 p.m.
Languages spoken: Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and Fukanese), English, French, Haitian-Creole, Russian, Slovak and Spanish
Download Dial-A-Teacher fliers in English and in Spanish
A Brief History
The Dial-A-Teacher program began in January of 1980. It was a pilot program in 17 schools in 8 districts. Five teachers were hired to field these questions with one teacher proficient in Spanish. Students throughout the city quickly began to use the program to get help with homework problems that stumped them. By 1986, the program expanded to include all elementary schools in the city through funding by the NYC City Council. The UFT provided a large space where the newly hired staff of 45 teachers could work. Hundreds of texts and reference materials were bought and Dial-A-Teacher was now a world-class source of help for all the elementary students in the city.
As word spread to students that there was a telephone number that they could call to get free help with homework, the number of calls climbed steadily. Students in middle school and high school who were using the Dial-A-Teacher program since the third grade continued to seek this help. Dial-A-Teacher began hiring experts in advanced math and science to field these calls from older students.
The director of the Dial-A-Teacher program is Anthony Harmon. Sean Blanks is the coordinator who assists in the day-to-day administration of the program. The office telephone number is 212-598-9205. You can use this number to arrange for workshops, to order materials, to schedule classroom visits or to get general information about the program. If you need to speak to the director, call 212-510-6338.