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Common Core Math: Are We Writing Checks We Can't Cash?

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Here we go again.

There's a story making the rounds on social media—if you haven't seen it yet, you will soon—about a funny dad in Ohio who wrote a check to his kid's school "using Common Core math." Have a look for yourself.

It's hard to know even where to begin with this one. I get the joke, I guess, at least as far as it goes: Common Core math is different than what we learned back in the Golden Age of American Education (which, if we're dating it to the era of the parents of kids currently in school, probably means sometime in the 1990s—did we know that was a golden age?), and it involves asking kids to think differently and to show their work differently. Anything that's different is, of course, cause for ridicule and concern. I get it. This is some high quality trolling, and the dad probably deserves to be commended for that. I don't teach Common Core math, least of all at this guy's kid's school, but the "math" he showed on this check is not exactly what kids are learning in school. I don't doubt that it is meant to mimic something this guy's child did at school, but obviously whatever it was was never intended to make its way onto a personal check. I had this confirmed by a few math teachers myself, and I'm taking their word for it.

I mean, seriously. This isn't what "Common Core math" is about. It's not about taking something nice and comfortable that too many of us never really understood to begin with and then just messing it up for the fun of it. It's not a conspiracy to make your kids dumb; it's actually a conspiracy to make your kids smart. It's about helping kids think mathematically, even for just an hour or two a day at first, and helping them apply different problem solving techniques to different kinds of problems. It's about chunking and partial products and developing a number sense, and a few other things some parents have never heard of before—and it's about doing these things so kids won't have to show their work (or even think all that hard about it) when they go to write a check or do a simple calculation or add ingredients proportionally to double a recipe for Thanksgiving dinner sometime in the future. I bought a hot dog at a football game this weekend, paid with a ten dollar bill, and waited as the high school kid who took my money consulted a cheat sheet before giving me back $3.50 in change. My man could have used some Common Core math.

That last point's an important one, and worth repeating: this is, at least partly, about teaching kids to show their work now so they won't have to later. It's about helping them work confidently with numbers and mathematical concepts so they don't have to go through life with a cheat sheet hidden in their back pockets. It may not look that way to parents who are struggling to decipher the homework their children bring home, but if we commit to teaching math this way we can actually change the way people think. In the end, what this dad is really making fun of is the fact that his child's teacher is trying to teach his child to show his or her work so his child can be a better thinker. Why are we making fun of his child's teacher for doing that?

I should say here that I understand completely why teachers would be obsessed with making kids show their work. You'd probably want to see proof that a kid understands something, too, if there were people out there threatening to take away your job if that kid doesn't get high enough scores on his standardized tests at the end of the year. But there's a better reason to ask students to show their work, and it is that just going through the extra steps it takes to explain your thinking can help lead to genuine understanding. Have you ever had somebody ask you to explain how you knew something, and then had trouble explaining it? Did it make you wonder how well you really knew it after all? There's an old saying that you know you know something really well when you can teach it to other people, and that holds for showing other people what you know too. People who show their work—historians, authors, public officials, scientists, engineers, and, yes, mathematicians—can do it because they really understand what they're talking about. Showing your work is a base expectation in the "real world" that so many parents are eager to have their children prepared for.

So do us all a favor—do your own kids, or your neighbor's kids, a favor—if you come across this story about the dad who wrote the funny Common Core check. Stop it before it spreads. You're not helping anybody if you let it go on. What you're actually doing if you let this joke continue to circulate is promoting reactionary, simplistic responses to things that you probably don't know enough about. We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether or not everybody should be held to the same basic set of math standards; I guess people who want to believe that setting a standard means we're all going to end up being exactly the same are entitled to their opinion. But ridiculing the fact that these particular standards ask students to think a little harder, and make their thinking visible to their teachers, isn't going to make your kids smarter, and it isn't going to make your kids' teachers better at what they do. Do your homework, America. Learn a little more about what's actually being taught, and why it's being taught, before you decide that it's  not worth doing.

Most important: keep writing your checks the old fashioned way. Nobody is trying to stop you from doing that, and nobody can understand that gibberish you're trying to pass of as "Common Core math" anyway. 

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