Entry 375: Rotten to the (Common) Core

Well, just in time for back-to-school, a recent article in the Sunday Times Magazine tried to explain why Americans are so bad at math, and why new methods of teaching math, such as “The New Math” and “The New New Math” and “Common Core,” never seem to work in this country like they do in places like Japan.

As an example of our overall suckiness at math, the article cites an instance in the early Math-for-Piano-Performance[1]1980’s when the A&W fast food chain introduced a 1/3 pound hamburger to compete with McDonald’s quarter-pounder. Although the burgers were priced the same, Americans preferred the 1/4 pound one because they thought 1/4 was bigger than 1/3 since 4 is more than 3.

The way I see it, this doesn’t demonstrate any math deficiencies. On the contrary, it shows that we do have basic math skills. We do, after all, know that four is more than three. It does, however, demonstrate something else: Americans are really, really stupid.

And we’re getting stupider all the time, because we have technology to do all our thinking for us. It reminds about things, tells us how to get places, finds us our perfect dates, and does all our calculations. About the only thing it doesn’t do is watch dumb TV shows for us.

That’s why Americans are really good at that.

But, in all fairness, I think we’d be smarter if academic morons didn’t keep trying to change the way they teach us stuff. When my daughter was in first or second grade, they were using a new way to teach English. She’s 28 now, and she still can’t write a grammatical sentence.

Getting back to the math article, here’s what it had to say about the thinking (I would say overthinking) that goes into new teaching methods:

“If you are trying to decide on the best problem to teach children to subtract a one-digit number from a two-digit number using borrowing, or regrouping, you have many choices.”

My choice would be to borrow a gun and shoot the person who’s making this decision. I would then regroup at my local pub and solve the problem of which is larger, a pint or 16 ounces, by ordering and consuming both measures in beer.

I’m a grown man (some might say overgrown), and I believe that I am fairly proficient at basic math. But with the quote above, they’ve lost me already, and they haven’t even arrived at the actual math part. Well, here’s the actual math part:

“They used 13 minus 9 because, faced with that particular problem, students were equally likely to employ subtraction-subtraction (take away 3 to get 10, and then subtract the remaining 6 to get 4) as they were to use subtraction-addition (break 13 into 10 and 3, and then take 9 from 10 and add the remaining 1 and 3 to get 4).”

Yikes! Way back at the beginning of that paragraph, I knew instantly that 13 minus 9 is 4. Now I’m not so sure.

I’ll tell you the real reason they chose a problem that subtracts from 13: that’s how many objects most Americans probably think are in a dozen. And even if they didn’t, they’d get all confused at the word problems because Americans don’t read or right so good neither.

Horace Jones of Arkansas goes into a Dunkin’ Donuts and buys a dozen jelly donuts. He eats four on the way home. Does he:

A. []Eat the rest while sitting in the driveway?

B. []Give one of the remaining donuts to each of his eight kids?

C. []Weigh more than 400 pounds?

Bonus points: If B above is correct, how many donuts were left when Horace got home?*

Getting back to the article, it puts the blame for our math deficiencies squarely on the shoulders of teachers. Not the teachers who teach our kids, but the teachers who teach them. In other words, the teachers in America don’t get enough training in how to teach these new methods of subtracting 9 from 13.

I would suggest that any new method of subtracting 9 from 13 that has to be taught to teachers should be instantly subtracted from the curriculum.

I’ll tell you what the problem is, and it’s not 13 minus 9. It’s all these theoretical educators who believe that everything has to be a concept and every concept has to have a name. Borrowing? Regrouping? It’s friggin’ 13 minus 9. How complicated do you have to make it?

Look, I understand the principle of teaching beyond the specific problem. You want those American kids to go out into the world and also be able to subtract 6 from 24. But I would suggest that a method which takes eight steps to do that is not particularly practical. While little Mary is breaking the 24 into 20 and 4 and taking the 6 from 20 and adding the remaining whatever to whatever, little Ashley has used the calculator on her iPhone to solve the problem and texted three friends about what an idiot Mary is.

Now, as for algebra…

See you soon.

*Correct answer: A and C.

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