The Common Core State Standards Initiative, less formally known as Common Core, has raised hackles all over the place.
Now I may be just a Simple Country Lawyer but I thought I’d take a closer look at the standards themselves and try to cut through the noise and see for myself if they make sense and what, if any, potential pitfalls are lurking there in the underbrush.
I’m calling this The Melvin Project, in honor of Arizona Senator Al Melvin who was recently quoted voicing his opposition to implementing the Common Core standards in his state. Since there’s a lot of material to cover, I’ll be doing this across multiple postings and will restrict my inquiry to the proposed standards for math education.
But first a few words about Senator Melvin. When asked if he had actually read the Common Core standards documentation, he replied, “I’ve been exposed to them.” Every teacher (and for that matter, every student) knows exactly what that phrase means. It’s what students say when you ask if they’ve done the reading. In other words, Senator Melvin most likely has no idea what is contained in the Common Core Standards documentation. Here’s the winning quote from the Arizona Daily Star:
“Pressed by Bradley for specifics, Melvin said he understands “some of the reading material is borderline pornographic.” And he said the program uses “fuzzy math,” substituting letters for numbers in some examples.”
This is the part that really drew my attention (and that of several other bloggers as well). Merriam-Webster defines pornography as “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement”. I’m not one to pass judgment on what individuals do in the privacy of their own homes but I wish to extend my sincere sympathies to Mrs. Senator Melvin and just leave it at that.
Now about that “fuzzy math” comment…
Fuzzy math is a real thing and has two definitions. The first involves math that deals with non-binary values. For example, in the real world, we can talk about things being ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ without assigning specific temperatures because these terms represent ranges. Traditional math can only deal with specific numbers but fuzzy math lets us perform useful calculations using values that fall along a continuum. In computer terms, traditional math is digital, the real world is analog and fuzzy math lets us bridge that gap.
The other definition of ‘fuzzy math’ is political. It’s a term used (rightly or wrongly) to criticize your opponent’s numbers. In many cases, it translates as “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I just hate you and I hate your ass face.”
Finally let’s address that whole “substituting letters for numbers” outrage.
Senator, that’s what those of us who didn’t sleep through our primary education years call Algebra. It’s the simplest possible math that can still be called ‘Math’. I realize that the name comes from the Arabic and perhaps that’s at the root of your objections (I don’t judge), but rest assured when it comes to traditional values, Algebra is no slouch in that department as it dates back to the ancient Babylonians. We use letters in place of (some) numbers as placeholders either because we don’t know all of the numbers yet or because we don’t care about specific values since we’re trying to find a general solution where we can plug in numbers later.
So I invite all of you to join me for The Melvin Project, where I explore the history, reality and (possible) conspiracy of Common Core and see whether we can all just calm the heck down.