Quin Hillyer: Common Core’s fuzzy math, other problems

From The New York Times, of all unlikely places, comes a story that pricks a pin into the inflated pretensions of educrats, columnists and blathering business lobbyists who sneer at opponents of Common Core as if the opponents are buck-toothed yahoos rather than the collection of think tankers, well-educated parents and eminent educators that they are.

Again and again, it is Common Core supporters who offer sheer vapidity, devoid of specifics, while well-informed opponents offer detailed explanations of their objections. Among those multitudinous objections, none is as frequent as the serious complaints about the specific content of the standards for mathematics, which completely upend traditional methods of instruction and learning.

Rather than asking students to memorize the most basic single-digit equations and then add or subtract in columns (the standard way), Core standards require students to use an oft-bewildering, multistep process usually involving a series of dots, lines, squares and cubes.

Supposedly, this method promotes “critical thinking.” But as the Times reported Sunday in an article specifically focusing on Louisiana students and parents, it just as often promotes confusion, frustration, anger and a crushing aversion to the entire subject of math.

“To make a student feel like they’re not good at math because they can’t explain something that to them seems incredibly obvious clearly isn’t good for the student,” W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University, said to the Times.

This is the nub of the issue. As just about everybody knows both intuitively and from observational logic, and as studies too numerous to list have demonstrated, different children learn in all sorts of different ways. For the Common Core standards to insist on only this one method — and a laborious one at that, which is largely unfamiliar to an overwhelming majority of Americans — is to use American students as guinea pigs for a theory of instruction that, while well researched, remains extremely controversial in the education community itself.

I see nothing wrong — indeed, everything right — with asking teachers to learn the dots-lines-squares method of teaching as a way to reach and engage children who are having difficulty with the traditional method. Likewise, students who quickly master the traditional method and who show an aptitude for “critical thinking” should be introduced to the Core’s system as a way to broaden their understanding. But to jettison traditional arithmetic for this alien mode of instruction is downright foolish.

It’s even worse when translated into and applied by textbook or workbook publishers who have no real clue what they are doing. Examples on the Internet are a legion of absolutely indecipherable, nonsensical or flat-out incorrect arithmetic problems offered in so-called “Core-aligned” workbooks or tests endorsed and adopted by various school boards rushing to get under the Common Core umbrella. (Hint: Google “Michelle Malkin Common Core” and you’ll find a host of infuriating examples.)

And the idiotically fuzzy math is only one of the problems with Common Core. As I have noted elsewhere, Common Core also drops all reference to the teaching of cursive (“script” as opposed to “print”) writing, even as uncontradicted scholarship increasingly shows that the very process of writing in longhand develops useful parts of the brain that otherwise lie fallow. Plenty of other content-specific objections are in play as well, along with quite reasonable concerns about moral and ideological agendas being pushed through “exemplars” of texts officially included as part of the Core’s index.

That is why one need not decide who has the best legal case in the battle over the Core being fought between Bobby Jindal and state school Superintendent John White. White, along with BESE Board Chairman Chas Roemer, may be well-motivated, but their support for Common Core relies on some extraordinarily faulty critical thinking.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.