#WeHateMath #TheMelvinProject Common Core Conspiracies

There’s a awful lot of hoo-ha going on about the Common Core Standards for Math and English. A lot of people, rightly or otherwise, seem pretty upset.

I thought I’d take a look at some of their complaints and see if I could help. (I’m caring nurturer.)

First up is Conservative Teachers of America. I had never heard of this organization so I took a look at their About page to see if they had a mission statement or something.

It was blank. This is never a good sign.

I searched on “Common Core” and pulled up two entries. Just for giggles, I also looked for posts tagged “Common Core” and filed under “National Standards: Common Core” and both came up blank, even though the two posts I initially found are tagged as “Common Core”.

Fine. Moving on.

Okay, both of the posts I found are also coming up blank. This has gone beyond comedy at this point. Is it some kind of post-modern deconstruction thing that I’m not getting? Okay, if they don’t want me to read their posts, I’ll just look somewhere else.

The Daily Caller – Common Core again threatens to make little kids pee their pants – Apparently bathroom breaks are strictly monitored and measured by our new Common Core Overlords. Or maybe it’s just some jerk-face petty bureaucrat at the single Chicago school where this rule was enacted. We may never know.

The Blaze – Dictatorship 101 – Apparently the Education Overlords are threatening violence against free-thinking citizens who dare to speak out against injustice and…um…I don’t know, algebra?. Oh, wait, it was just some guy being a jerk and disrupting a public forum before being asked to leave by security. Darn it, I was hoping for something dramatic, like Arne Duncan tearing up the Constitution, wiping himself with it and then setting it on fire.

Okay, this one is promising. Town Hall – Common Core Teaches Kids to Hate the Constitution. Now we’re getting somewhere! Let me check those dastardly Language Arts standards:

(Grades 11-12)

Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).

I seem to be missing the whole ‘make sure the kids learn to hate our founding documents’ thing. Clearly I’m a bit rusty in my ‘reading for understanding’ skills. Well spotted, Townhall guy!

Okay, this is getting silly. As I’ve said before, there are legitimate concerns with how Common Core is being rolled out but these kinds of stories just strengthen the case for improved education standards.

“A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest, of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.”  – Thomas Jefferson, 1818.

 

#WeHateMath #TheMelvinProject – Common Core Math Testing

Last week, Stephen Colbert did a bit on the Common Core called “Common Core Confusion”, which was both funny and painful to watch (like most good satire). He took a couple of questions from a Common Core math test and riffed on how weird and confusing they were. He was right, they were awkwardly phrased and asked for odd input from the student. (One of them told the student to write their friend a letter and explain the math problem to them.)

“Great!”, I thought to myself, “I’ve got a topic for the blog, ready-made!”  All I had to do was dig up some of those goofy questions and talk about them and offer perspective and then something something freedom + comedy. So I happened across a site that offered Common Core test prep and thought I had it made.

There was only one problem.

I actually read the questions and they were nothing like the ones that were presented on The Colbert Report. In fact, they were perfectly reasonable and written in a clear, understandable way. For example, this one from Grade 6 Mathematics:

 

The balance on your savings account is -50, which means that you have $50 of debt. A monthly charge increases the amount of your debt. Which of the following could be your new balance?

  1. 60

  2. 40

  3. -40

  4. -60

 

It turns out that the goofy questions that Colbert cited (and the ones floating around the Internet) are not Common Core questions at all. In fact, the Common Core standards do NOT specify how the subjects are taught. Every school district (or state or whatever appropriate local education body) is free to present the material in any way that they feel works best for their students. In fact, this is stated right on the front page of the standards document:

While the standards set grade-specific goals, they do not define how the standards should be taught or which materials should be used to support students. States and districts recognize that there will need to be a range of supports in place to ensure that all students, including those with special needs and English language learners, can master the standards. It is up to the states to define the full range of supports appropriate for these students.

So the questions that have been going viral all over the Internet are actually the result of really bad curriculum designers.

Now I’ve worked on curriculum committees. I’ve done course design. It’s a lot of work and you really don’t know if you’ve got it right until you’ve presented it to your students and get their feedback, both through their comments and how well they end up understanding the material.

The point (and I think I have one here somewhere) is that bad teachers are not the fault of Common Core. Bad course designers are not the fault of Common Core. Scam artists who suck up taxpayer dollars and deliver crappy materials and when caught, point fingers at Common Core have been around since before there was Common Core.


Yes, there are legitimate concerns with Common Core (and not a few illegitimate, insane ones). But what this recent brouhaha tells me is that national standards for primary education is just the beginning.

As Thomas Jefferson said:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul (sic) with a wholsome (sic) discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. this is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

#WeHateMath Introduction to Common Core Math – #TheMelvinProject

(This series was inspired by a recent interview with Arizona state Senator Al Melvin who, after voting to bar implementation of the Common Core standards adopted by his state, was asked by a reporter if he’d actually read the standards, replied, “I’ve been exposed to them.” As an educator, I recognize that phrase as code for “No, I haven’t.”)

There’s a lot of excited political jibber-jabber concerning the Common Core standards. However, this is not a political blog so I just wanted to look at the standards themselves. I’m primarily interested in the Common Core standards for mathematics education. There is also a set of standards for English language arts and literacy but I don’t feel I have the background to do them proper justice. (And this is a blog about math, after all.)

The Common Core State Standards Initiative has a Web site describing their work and you can even download a copy of the standards document if you wish. In theory, the standards adoption policy is entirely voluntary on a state-by-state basis. In actual practice, the Department of Education is making Race For The Top funding (about $4.5 million worth) to individual states contingent on adopting the standards. This seems political but it’s not that different than when the Federal Government wanted the states to adopt a 55 mph speed limit and tied it to interstate highway funding with the National Maximum Speed Law back in 1974 (signed into law by Richard Nixon, as a matter of fact) and people complained about that as well. But that’s politics and that’s not why I’m here.

(That being said, Race For The Top does have it’s issues that aren’t really connected to Common Core Standards and perhaps it might have been smarter to give Common Core it’s own funding bucket rather than tying it to RFTT. But again, that’s politics.)

As a general idea, having national education standards is a good idea. The majority of developed countries have them. For us they would only apply to K-12 and are meant to ensure that a high school diploma from a one room school house in Butte, Montana can be considered equivalent to one from a rich public school in Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, humans being the complicated beings that they are, the reality is much messier.

The standards for math are divided into mathematical practice and mathematical content. The content section has sub-sections for grades K-8 with the sub-section for High School further divided by subjects including: Number and Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Modelling, Geometry, and Statistics and Probability.

The standards for mathematical practice describe the types of expertise that teachers should be developing in their students:

The standards for content describe specific objectives and outcomes for each grade level but (despite using the word ‘content’) do not specify how an objective should be met or with what materials (textbooks, multimedia, etc.). That would be left up to the state and local authorities.

So ‘practice’ covers the overall outcomes for K-12  and ‘content’ states what general topics are covered and when.

Got it.

In addition, even if a state adopts the standards the implementation decisions are made at the state and local level. In addition, implementation of the Common Core standards does not require data collection. Personally, I think this bit is a little weaselly. There’s a saying in business circles: You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure. So there will be data collected, but by the states themselves and not Washington or even the United Nations.

So far it doesn’t look that bad to me on the surface. However, looks can be deceiving, you can’t judge a book by its cover, something something freedom. So I’ll be back with a more detailed look in later posts.

 

#WeHateMath Common Core Math: #TheMelvinProject

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.