Many, many years ago, in an all-but-forgotten world where Merlin was considered an innovative gaming device and razor blades in Halloween candy went undiscovered until you’d sliced open your esophagus, I passed second grade. Easily, if memory serves. I loved my teacher, whose name was Mrs. Ellenberger. I also loved school, because apparently “getting good grades with minimal effort” was one of my gifts. I’m grateful for it, I really am, despite the years of wishing I could trade it for more desirable gifts such as “being able to participate in small talk without coming across as a total weirdo” or “the ability to move my physical body in a way that might in some cultures resemble dancing.” But, you know. You get what you get and so forth, and what I got was a perfect score on every spelling test ever. As for math, no problems there either – I didn’t get sent to Math-a-thons (whereas I still have the dictionary I won at a spelling bee), but I did well. It was school. I was good at it.
The key word, in this case, being was.
If you have young kids, you know about it, and even if you don’t, you still may have heard: math has changed. And it turns out it doesn’t come quite as easily to me as it did back in the 1970’s. In fact, I might not be able to do it at all, if it weren’t for my son Joey’s (increasingly rare) patience in explaining to me why 7+8 can no longer just equal 15. I mean, 7+8 obviously still equals 15. But due to the much discussed Common Core set of educational standards, it’s no longer quite that simple.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Common Core, you can take a look at the details of the Pennsylvania standards here, or find a more general description of the nationwide program here. Or, you could simply follow along with my illustration of a math problem that used to be simple and now is not:
Common Core advocates argue that in math, knowing the answer is not enough. A child must also understand why the answer is the answer, and, I mean, I get that. I do. What I don’t get is how the Common Core answer to 7+8 provides any deeper understanding than my own explanation, which is if you have seven things and then you get eight more things, now you will have fifteen things, and that is why 7+8 = 15.
According to the Common Core method shown above, 7+8 = 15 because 7+3 = 10, and 8-3 = 5, and 10+5 = 15.
Clearly this is almost criminally stupid, but the fact that it’s stupid is not really the problem. The problem is that by stressing “core concepts” over rote memorization, Common Core proponents are asking kids to think critically without giving them any facts. It’s like asking them to create a sculpture out of smoke, or draw a picture of infinity. Without knowing basic arithmetic – learned easily enough through play, repetition, and real world examples – we’re giving them nothing to work with. And then wondering why more and more U.S. kids hate math with every fiber of their little second-grade beings.
Some Common Core supporters have said that rote memorization is not good; some have gone so far as to say it’s harmful. Others have said that it’s our job as parents to take the time to learn the new ways, because our children’s education should be our top priority. I don’t disagree with that, on the surface. However, I do believe our children’s education should be just that: our children’s. Not our own. I want to know what my kids are learning, and I want to help them when they need it. But the thing is – and this is kind of a big thing – having passed second grade once already in this lifetime, I really, really, REALLY don’t want to have a re-do at the age of 44.
I don’t know. This whole thing makes me angry, mainly because it seems to me to be nothing but a heavily bureaucratized attempt at getting U.S. test scores to compare more favorably to better-performing countries such as Finland and Singapore and Japan. Like our national “We’re #1!” mentality is suffering at the hands of our underperforming children, and so we’re scrambling to fix them without thinking about what might actually work. And then we subject them to hours of standardized tests, forgetting that the human brain has yet to be standardized.
Seriously. Imagine giving the exact same skill test to Beethoven and Thomas Edison. Or Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. Never mind that three of the four of them are dead, you know what I’m saying. Or maybe you don’t. Actually even I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but I can see I have a lot of reading to do before I can form any kind of opinion regarding potential solutions to this problem. And you know what, I totally intend to do it. Right after I download this second grade refresher course I’ve been meaning to take.
Oh. One more thing, consider it a parting gift for having read this far. It’s an interesting bit of Thomas Edison trivia taken from thomasedison.com:
“At age seven – after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of all ages – Tom’s overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child’s persistent questioning and seemingly self centered behavior. Noting that Tom’s forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster’s brains were ‘addled’ or scrambled.”
After that, Thomas Edison abandoned his formal education and instead, learned at home with his mother. I suspect she did not subject him to standardized tests each spring.
As for the educator that called him “addled” – I sincerely hope that he lived long enough to see the light.