Friday, September 13, 2013

Common Core Math and Why It Doesn't Work

I love math. I know that's a weird thing to say, but I do. It's order out of chaos, and a definitive and provable right and wrong. Math is a language I learned to speak, and then to master. I love it.

Where am I going with this? Common Core. Have you heard about it? It's the federal government's attempt to take over education from the states and the local authorities. It's a setting of national standards and methods and an arm-twisting approach to compliance that uses our tax dollars to force every state to be on board.

There are a host of things which are disturbing to me about Common Core. The changing of standards in reading and literature bother me like nobody's business, the data mining of students for federal databases scares the poop out of me, but what makes me sad is what they've done to math.

Common Core takes this already difficult subject and makes it nearly impossible to comprehend. Here's an example from a textbook that aligns with CC standards (a friend of mine read this to me over the phone from her daughter's math text. If you want the name and publisher, I can get that info for you. I just don't have it handy.)

We're going to be dividing 128 by 4. That is:

128÷4=?

If you just jumped right in there and answered 32, you're a smarty pants and you're wrong. Because Common Core isn't about getting the right answer. It's about the process. You did it the old fashioned way of  thinking. There's no more "there are 3 4's in 12 and 2 4's in 8 so the answer is 32" business. Slow it down, speedy.

Here's one of the Common Core methods using the distributive property:

128÷4

First break the 128 down into hundreds, tens, and ones so that you have:

100+20+8÷4=?

Then simplify it further (and I'm not sure why we're calling this simplified) to:

(100÷4)+(20÷4)+(8÷4)=?

So for our next step, we simplify it further by dividing the numbers in the parentheses and get:

25+5+2=?

Then you add all those numbers together and arrive at:

32

Yes, I know that that's the answer you had almost immediately using the old-fashioned kind of math you learned in school, but that 32 was wrong because you didn't think it out the right way. You see, under CC standards you could have answered 30 and gotten the problem right if you had thought it through correctly. CC math isn't about teaching math, it's about teaching you how to think.

Now, I'll just stop there and be honest with you. A part of all mathematics education is centered around teaching the students to think logically. Logical thinking has always been a part of math curricula. What is wrong with the new way of doing it is that there is no logic to this way of doing math. It's a short cut.

Literally.

Here's another nerd confession from me, there was a time that I was a mathlete. That's right. I did competitive mathematics and it was fun, by golly. That's why I can tell you that the CC problem I wrote about above has a place. It's fast mental math. It's a trick. It's a way of doing math as quickly as possible in your head. That's where the CC people found it. If you read the reasoning behind teaching math in this manner, they will cite the fact that mathletes do it this way because it's faster. And it is. In your head.

The problem that I see is that in order to be able to do it the mathlete party-trick way, you have to understand the mathematical concepts. We're back to "math is a language."

Let me put it this way.... A few years ago, there was a commercial on the radio for a Spanish language learning program that promised to teach you Spanish in just minutes a day and faster than you'd ever learned it before. In fact, they promised, you could learn a Spanish phrase by the send of the commercial if you could just spell the words socks. (That's what they said. I can't make this stuff up.) So the woman on the commercial would spell "S. O. C. K. S." and the announcer man would say "You just spoke Spanish." and he would go on to tell the listeners that they had just said "that is what it is" in Spanish. Technically, he was right, I suppose. The phrase in Spanish - Eso si que es - does mean "that is what it is."  She "spoke Spanish," I guess, but it didn't teach her how to speak Spanish. It's a trick.

No one who heard that commercial really believed that the woman was speaking Spanish. She had leaned a handy phrase to repeat back, but if you had asked her what the word "que" meant, she could not have told you. In order to learn Spanish, you have to learn the words. You have to learn about how those words work together. You have to learn it step by step before you can speak it well enough to use it out in the real world.

Math is the same way. Your brain learns it as a language you speak. You have to learn it step by step and get a good grasp of the numbers, the rules, and how they all work together or you're not fluent in it. The problem with this new way of teaching math is the students have only been taught tricks and phrases to memorize, but not how they actually work together. Which means they can't speak it. And if they can't "speak" the simple sentences, then they're going to be lost when they get to anything that requires them to use logic and deductive reasoning to figure it out. Which is what is happening to our students when they run smack up against the wall of higher mathematics. Algebra and calculus? No way. There are a few smarties who will have learned to speak math in spite of the way they were taught, the same way that some people will figure out Spanish from learning how to do silly things like spell socks. Those people are the exception.

CC math is just the "new math" of the 60s and 70s rebranded and repackaged, but now with the weight of the federal government to push it forward. New math was an abysmal failure that dropped math literacy rates everywhere it was tried. Calling it Common Core and training the teachers in this "new method" is not going to change the fact that it doesn't teach math. It teaches an irrational approach which is confusing to people who don't already understand the concepts you're trying to "shortcut" around. Which makes me start to wonder who benefits from a generation that can't do higher levels of math and struggles with basic concepts, and why is the government willing to use it's power and our tax dollars to push that agenda?

Want to see common core in action? Here's a video of a teacher trying to explain long division using Common Core's other approved method - partial quotients. Please keep in mind that this is supposed to be making it "easier."

cathmom5 said...

I was about to say it, but you did mention it--my sister was taught the "new math" in the 70's. She was two years behind me in school and that was "new" when she got to upper elementary grades. Consequently, she can't do math in her head. This stupid "new" math-CC-whatever they want to call it crops up about once a generation and dismally fails. I don't understand why the educators (and government educators in particular) haven't learned from this mistake. I am saddened to know that it has come back yet again. But I thank God my kids are learning math the "old fashioned way" because they've got an old mom. ;-)

Anonymous said...

My siblings and I are all horrible at math. My brother still has two years left in high school, and I'm afraid this "new math" will confuse him even more than it already does. Ugh.

Endless Strength said...

Rebecca Frech said...

E.S.,
The tricks are great once you have a foundation. The problem with CC is not that it teaches the tricks alongside the basics but that it teaches them instead of the basics.

I'd be interested to know what your brother thinks about the changes.

Abigail said...

Rebecca--I've got it. The federal government DOESN'T want us to learn math.

If we could actually do math, then we might question how 114,000 new jobs added in August could yield a 7.4 percent unemployment rate in a country with a total population of 313.9 million people!

But, if like Barbie, we're all used to thinking "Math is hard" then we let the Feds say anything they want to say about the economic numbers.

ArchaicSteam said...

I went to public school through 5th grade then was homeschooled 6th-12th.

The math being taught in 4th and 5th grade at my public school was so convoluted that parents who were engineers had a difficult time understanding it.

So during my first probably 6 months of being homeschooled was devoted in part to re-learning math.

scottiev said...

SO just the other day, I saw this post about how Japanese children learn math... this is a WAY better short cut than those...
http://pinstrosity.blogspot.com/2013/09/multiplication-pin-explained.html

and they;ll actually come up with the right answer and have to know... MATH (insert gasp here) to use it with larger numbers....

LeighAnna said...

As soon as I saw the example you gave, I thought of this! :)

Nod said...

That CC division video is the worst piece of garbage I have ever seen.

The only thing it offers is not having to know your times tables in favor of multiplying "friendly numbers" like 10 and 100.

Just memorize the times tables up to 12. Or play Yahtzee.

Holy cow, no wonder we've got a nation of dunderheads!

erin said...

Wooow, I couldn't make it all the way through that video. Took me about three seconds to get the answer the traditional way. What a horrible, tedious method.

Karyn said...

I was asking my husband about CC (he works in the NC school system while I stay home and homeschool). He said CC is just a standard that all states have to meet and it's a low standard at that. He said it doesn't regulate how teachers teach the subject, as long as it's taught. So a textbook manufacturer just needs to show that a child is taught how to divide a three digit number by a one digit number - but it's up to the textbook and teacher what method is used. He said CC made absolutely no changes in the "Scope and Sequence" that NC already used; they simply had to change some numbers and a little bit of wording.

As for the "arm-twisting" of state and local governments, you're probably thinking of Obama's Race to the Top that provides federal money with a whole bunch of strings attached, including an insane amount of testing (even though it started with Bush's No Child Left Behind but has gotten progressively worse).

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, thank you for posting this.

As a parent of a college freshman and a high school sophomore, it has been my experience that the new teachers coming out of college are, in some cases, teaching the CC methods even though that curriculum has not been adopted by the schools or school districts. The parents and the administrations need to be on the lookout for this way of teaching.

Sus

Barbara C. said...

Karyn is correct. At least in theory CC is something enacted at a state level by some convention of governors. It is a set of standards, not necessarily methods.

However the textbooks companies changing to comply to CC and make money off of selling the new textbooks is probably just changing the methodologies to show that it's something different.

In some states there are CC-inspired recommendations for scripted lessons for teachers. Each state decides how they want to implement it, as does each diocese.

I really freaked out when I found out our parish school (and diocese) is using Common Core, but it's really CC is just the recent method of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of the 20th-century education model. The kids with aptitude and parental support will succeed like they always have and the rest will rot away like they always have.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I read through my daughter's new CC math book for 7th grade last week and it seems just fine: far better than the crappy Everyday Math series they had been using. I think there may be more variation book to book than people realize.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for posting this. I totally agree with your concerns, and would add that the goal of the CC is to have every child learning the same thing on the same day. This enables a child to switch schools without the frustrations of having to catch up, and without teachers having to work with them to get them caught up. However, one would expect that schools in different areas, demographics, etc, would have different rates of teaching. I have seen my own children's education slowed down as a direct result of CC. I am working with others in my state to start a grass roots effort to stop its progress at the state level as well as in our archdiocese. Every concerned parent should write a letter to their school board, state board of ed, office of Catholic Education, and bishop. There is no reason why the federal government should be closely involved in our children's education.

Andrea said...

I sucked at math. I couldn't even enjoy it at all, until college. Fortunately/unfortunately I was the other side of the brain thinker, considering I was an "artsy fartsy" person. I did however finally have an awesome algebra professor in college. One time the whole class did so horrible on an exam- he came right out and said he must not have taught it well enough. We reviewed it and retested and everyone did much better. THAT is uheard of at a college level. He was an awesome professor. My only other math excitement came a few years ago when I learned how to convert a fraction to a decimal on the calculator. Yes- that seriously was an exciting day. I'm not even exaggerating. It's so awesome. But yeah- I'm mathematically challenged in more ways than one. My husband however can do hard math, like the "T" word and the "C" word stuff. Scary. I wouldn't even know what that looks like.

Anonymous said...

Math is really tough. I really do have some problems understanding the concepts. I'm thinking of telling mom that I need high school math/high school mathematics tutoring. I guess 1-1 tutoring could help me.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing thank you for this blog. This CC is getting ridiculous.