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common core math: Satan’s handiwork

2014/08/17

As I put my syllabi together for 2014-2015, I was struck with this question: why is Common Core so bad for our students? I hope this doesn’t ends up seeming like drivel to those who read it. It’s just me, a 7th-year teacher, responding to what I see as a LOT of misinformation and hype and therefore fear about what is happening in education.

Traditionally, every level of math through eighth grade included a variety of strands: geometry, algebra, number sense, statistics. Did you know that when kindergartners organize buttons by color or shape they are already using algebraic reasoning? Obviously they don’t have an entire class called “Algebra for Kindergartners,” but sorting buttons is foundational to being able to sort variables and unlike terms in Algebra 1.

Additionally, math scores for elementary students are typically MUCH higher than the scores for junior high and high school students. And they usually aren’t even being taught by so-called math teachers. What is happening there that isn’t happening at higher levels?

Many high schools – including mine – are moving to what is called “Integrated Math,” which I see as emulating the long-proven success of K-8 math as well as simply applying decades of research as to how children best learn. It integrates geometry with algebra and statistics and forces kids to reason through difficult problems that might not have an obvious answer or one particular set of steps to get to the solution.

Please disregard the isolated examples of “common core math problems.” There is no such thing as a common core problem. It’s a set of standards, not a set of problems. How it gets taught is given just as much academic freedom as its predecessor. There are lousy problems that try to address Common Core standards and terrific problems that try to address Common Core standards.

Also, many publishers were quick to throw out a bunch of textbooks labeled Common Core. In more cases than not, it was just a new stamp or label on the previous edition, many times with the same publishing/printing mistakes that had already been discovered. Just because someone calls their material Common Core doesn’t mean they are representative of this shift.

I’m teaching 8th and 9th graders this year, and it’s fascinating to see the new integrated approach for 9th graders so closely emulate the 8th grade model. Traditionally 9th graders would take Algebra 1 or Geometry. And that’s it. There might be a few problems in the Algebra book here and there that are called “geometry connection” or something like that, but it’s not a concerted effort to truly mesh the disciplines on a constant basis. And it’s a focus on “enrichment instead of advancement.” In other words, being able to finish a textbook isn’t an automatic pass to the next one. They should learn the concepts more deeply before moving on. This is one of the biggest challenges as an educator: how to challenge those who “get it” quickly.

Think about it this way: if you were really proficient in your freshman English class, they wouldn’t throw you into English 10. Why do this in math, then? If math is seen as just a collection of facts and rigid steps, then you can “level up” quickly and just keep moving on. But if it’s seen as a rich, dynamic discipline that can be explored ever more deeply, then it’s pretty tough to completely master a topic. This is how it should be.

Don’t listen to Glenn Beck. This is not a federal movement. It was a grass-roots movement started by educators. Unfortunately this all happened contemporaneously to the ill-planned “Race to the Top” but Common Core was sponsored by the governors association and the top education officials in each state, not from the federal level.

At a STEM conference I attended last November, this startling statement was made: “This year’s kindergartners will retire in 2073. What are we doing in the classroom today that will truly make a difference in their lives and in their world?”

I dare say: not the same thing we have been doing.

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