The latest in useless Common Core disputes involves whether Louisiana’s legislative auditor indicated that the Core “drives” curriculum (Gov. Bobby Jindal’s version) or merely “guides” it (auditor Daryl Purpera’s own explanation).
That’s a sideshow. What is more important, and more frustrating, is how the auditor’s report whitewashes Common Core’s true nature by describing the Core’s changes in a bizarrely flattering light.
Here’s how the auditor frames the Core’s shift in mathematical emphasis: “Under the Common Core mathematics standards, teachers cover fewer topics in greater depth with their students than in the past. For instance, in kindergarten through second grade, students focus on mathematical concepts, skills, and problem solving related to addition and subtraction.”
Greater depth? Well, that’s one way to describe it. The better way is “incomprehensibly greater confusion.” Or, more simply: “gobbledygook.” Here is actual text [italics from the original], directly quoted from the Core’s own official document, of the Core’s “Standards of Mathematical Practice”:
“Mathematically proficient students make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations. They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems involving quantitative relationships: the ability to decontextualize—to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents — and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved.”
It’s unlikely that even a single good math teacher in Louisiana thinks her job is to teach students “to abstract a given situation and … manipulate the representing symbols … without necessarily attending to their referents.” Indeed, it might be impossible just to find a teacher who can possibly decipher that nonsense, much less use it as a teaching guide.
Meanwhile, what the auditor calls an “emphasis … on the concepts, skills, and problem-solving” related to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division is a nice way to say that the Core approach gives more weight to the process and logic (or purported logic) of solving math problems than it does to actually, yes, solving the problems, meaning getting the answers right.
Stories are legion, and incontrovertible, of students in Core-centric classes being given low grades for right answers — all because the students couldn’t show the required dots, lines, squares, cubes or folded-paper cutouts to explain how they figured that 6 is half of 12.
Here’s how the Core’s own document describes it [emphasis mine]: “Mathematically proficient students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later.”
That’s exactly what Core math is all about: justifying reasoning (or a first-grader’s guesswork), rather than necessarily arriving at the correct answer.
With its stress on endless process rather than results, Common Core actually slows down the current schedule of student advancement through basic mathematical disciplines. In The Atlantic — not exactly a hotbed of reactionary thought — noted mathematics writer Barry Garelick explains that Common Core “not only complicates the simplest of math problems; it also leads to delays. Under the Common Core Standards, students will not learn traditional methods of adding and subtracting double- and triple-digit numbers until fourth grade. (Most schools teach these skills two years earlier.) The standard method for two- and three-digit multiplication is delayed until fifth grade; the standard method for long division until sixth.”
Garelick, quite reasonably, writes that he fears Common Core “may herald a new era where more and more students are given a flimsy make-believe version of mathematics, without the ability to solve actual math problems.”
That’s just the math. The Core’s language-arts standards likewise emphasize form over substance, to highly detrimental result — among a host of other spin-off effects that have drawn the ire, variously, of eminent educators and historians and giants of prose craftsmanship.
It is no wonder that the more teachers try to work within the Core, the more they dislike it. Support among teachers for the reforms dropped in one year from 76 percent all the way down to 46 percent. Even by Common Core arithmetic, nobody needs to “probe into the referents” to know those numbers are astonishingly bad.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.