Two Plus Two is Five—Who Cares? The Serious Issues of Common Core

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Two Plus Two is Five—Who Cares? The Serious Issues of Common Core

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

There is an economics joke about a president asking the question, “What is two plus two?” to a mathematician, an accountant, and an economist. The mathematician answers, “Four,” the accountant, “Well, we might get it to equal zero,” and the economist, after pulling down the blinds, whispers, “What do you want it to be?” As a joke, the economist’s answer is amusing—but it is not the answer we would like our children to select on a math test. This very ambiguity, however, is but one of the many flaws now coming to light in the increasingly adopted Common Core educational standards. Not only do these standards result in in strange and inefficient teaching methods being forced upon or selected by teachers nationwide, but they threaten both the appreciation of the arts and the incentive for school districts and states to do what is best for their own students, and thus must at the least be seriously reconsidered.

Common Core’s first error is its profound misinterpretation of the idea of critical thinking. Somehow, its designers presumed that thinking critically, rather than being an activity used to examine certain positions or to infer ideas from certain passages, somehow involves deconstructing every single assumption in every field. For instance, in that field, numerous worksheets have cropped up in which formerly basic math problems are made egregiously complex. One such example is that of a worksheet using an array (in elementary school, no less) to rewrite the expression 6 x 8 as (5 + 1) x 8. Another involves the complex use of a number line to subtract two large numbers instead of that terribly outdated method of simply subtracting them. These problems, which have rightfully sparked parental outrage, do not promote critical thinking—they promote supererogation, which is the process of making something more complicated than necessary—in other words, they implement the idea of “critical thinking” both wrongly and inefficiently.

This is no better exemplified than the claim of a “curriculum coordinator” who explains that, under Common Core, “getting the right answer in math just doesn’t matter as long as kids can explain the necessarily faulty reasoning they used to get to that wrong answer.” Once again, a positive idea (critical thinking) has been misapplied. In some fields, critical thinking like this is necessary; for instance, when making a claim about the theme of a novel, in which there are multiple subjective interpretations, the explanation is often more important than the answer. In mathematics, however, there is only one answer to a question such as “What is four plus three?” Promoting circumlocution and the use of well-worded fallacies to deny indisputable fact does not create critical thinkers. A well-rounded individual can distinguish between fact and opinion, can accept the former and can use it to make arguments about the latter. Declaring that the sky is yellow with polka-dots is ridiculous, no matter how eloquent the declaration. To teach that all facts are subjective is to create a generation of people inept in the basics of persuasive argument.

Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is Common Core’s newfound insistence that 50% of all readings now be “informational” reading. The American Federation of Teachers, which supports Common Core, seems to brush over this point in their “myth-busting” of Common Core, stating that “Common Core State Standards continue to provide a heavy focus—at least 50 percent—on the reading and comprehension of great literature classics,” as if to say, “Yes, we’ve reduced the Classics by half, but at least you’ll still have half left!” Such “informational texts” include, for instance, speeches and other historical artifacts that would normally be studied in a history class. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the study of non-ficton—but to require a 50% level of informational texts in an age in which teachers are already being pressured to “teach to the test” to improve mathematics and science scores puts the study of literature in great danger. The Classics are not to be dismissed as mere “fiction,” for literature often is the first to realize that which science and society ignore or fail to see. Years before the invention of psychology, authors such as Melville (“Bartleby the Scrivener”) and Dostoevsky (The Double) were examining society’s response to mental illness, while works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a work of fiction—helped begin the transformation of Northern opinions on slavery. To relegate 50% of these Classics to the sidelines (or worse, to force teachers to shorten class discussions to fit in more books) and then expect science and history teachers to coordinate textual discussions of “informational” (itself a vague term) texts is troubling.

Why then, one might ask, would Common Core make such a requirement? The first claim is that this is part of “college preparation,” as college involves more use of information texts. Yet there is a reason why information texts become more common in college as individuals specialize, and this is because the human ability to think abstractly—without specific examples or stories—is something that develops slowly. To plunge elementary students into a study of non-fiction texts and to do so often without historical context (as Common Core suggests), in what is called a “cold reading,” is to skip entirely the didactic purpose of literature, which is to introduce students to inference and analogy by way of engaging stories. Our proficiency in technical fields such as math and science is indeed low, but edging out English is not the solution; in China, our “model” for education excellence in math and science, they are paying the price for this focus (coupled with excessive use of technology) as they are losing the ability to write their own language.

The second, and perhaps more cynical reason, has to do with the fact that Common Core was not designed by those will be teaching our children. That is right: according to the educator Nancy Carlton Page, “In all, there were 135 people on the review panels for the Common Core. Not a single one of them was a K–3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.” Sandra Stotsky (University of Arkansas) and Jane Robbins make a similar point in an op-ed on the closed-door creation of Common Core by the Gates Foundation and Pearson (who conveniently sells textbooks). Common Core was designed by those who wish to implement their view of what constitutes education on all fifty states by essentially bribing the states into making choices that may or may not be consistent with what is best for the children actually residing in those states. If a state receives federal funding for succeeding in tests specifically based on Common Core standards, is their resulting implementation of Common Core done for the sake of their children or to acquire the federal funds? The very reason for which the Founders put education in the hands of the states—to prevent the “one size fits all” approach—is at risk.

It is time, particularly as those participating in the educational system, to ask ourselves what the purpose of education actually is. Is it nothing more than a set of tools to be used to create “productive” citizens? Or are there aspects of education—such as literature, such as music—that contribute to the existence of well-rounded human beings? It could well be that a “common” formula—redesigned with proper input to remove the inefficiencies, the openings for corruption, and the misguided intentions discussed—might be right for some states. But with a pot of gold hanging out there to convince states to sign on and a slew of corporate sponsors backing it, there exists the serious threat that Common Core’s growing implementation has, in reality, very little to do with education.

By Alexander Urpí, YAF Reagan Writer

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