I’m terrible at math.
In seventh grade, I became aware of my poor math preparation when I entered a team math competition against other Catholic schools in the Chicagoland area. At least half of the problems on the exam I had never encountered before, and I had no clue how to approach them. My team placed low in the team standings, far behind suburban schools.
We were A students, too, but the competition gave us a rude awakening and made me realize my school wasn’t rigorous enough. The A’s in math I earned meant little.
Our teacher acknowledged the questions must have been tough for us since they weren’t familiar and at the time, I was relieved by her attempt to make us feel better. Looking back, I wish she had admitted that she’d fallen short in her instruction, as had our Catholic school with its weak curriculum, which emphasized memorization rather than actual problem solving.
The sense my math skills lagged only intensified in high school when I struggled mightily with geometry and algebra II while some of my classmates cruised through class. For them, it repeated what they already learned in junior high. I excelled in my other classes, but math always remained my one glaring weakness.
Entire generations of students like myself have spent school feeling lost in math class or thinking they’re just not cut out for it. With the Common Core State Standards, we have a potentially major solution to Americans’ lack of numeracy, but as an article by A.K. Whitney in The Atlantic shows, previous attempts at pushing schools to give students a deeper understanding of math and to introduce a measure of uniformity in what students need to learn have been met with fierce and sustained resistance.
To borrow an expression from a former colleague of mine, the resistance is “crazypants.”
A Not So Radical Thought
Common Core, a magnet for ludicrous conspiracy theories, might seem new to us but the thinking behind it is not. It’s the contemporary version of a similar struggle waged in 1916 by the Mathematical Association of America’s National Committee on Mathematical Requirements when it expressed concern over the nation’s students lagging behind in math compared to their European peers. As Whitney writes:
Until then, math education consisted of few attempts at helping students reach a deeper understanding. One impetus for reform was that, while the country had become a leader in technological and industrial innovation in the early 20th century, and while more students were taking algebra and geometry than before, many of its schools had yet to be as sophisticated or academically rigorous as those in Europe.
The Association, like math educators now (not corporations or billionaires as the conspiracy theorists mistakenly believe), didn’t propose anything radical. They thought algebraic concepts could be taught beginning in the sixth grade, emphasized practical applications over memorization, and felt that a good grounding in math was valuable to all students regardless of what career paths they pursued.
Instead, their efforts were derailed by William Kilpatrick, a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University, who relied on iffy social science and what appeared to be kneejerk personal feelings rather than solid academic research. Whitney writes later that:
Kilpatrick believed that anything beyond arithmetic was useless to most of the population. He even worried that the instruction of complex math was harmful to everyday living.
Kilpatrick led a National Education Association committee that wrote a report, The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary Education, based on the work of psychologist Edward Thorndike and set forth American math education in the wrong direction that it’s finally trying to get off.
Relying on Thorndike’s findings, the report’s authors warned high schools against offering advanced math to students who didn’t demonstrate great interest or obvious talent in the subject or who didn’t intend to go into engineering or hard science (these students being invariably female).
An oft-cited myth of Common Core is that it is a one-size-fits-all federal directive but what detractors fail to understand is that education in this country can benefit from some uniformity. Instead of leaving it up to teachers to make arbitrary decisions as to who is and isn’t capable of learning deeper math, to having clearly-defined benchmarks all kids can reach is a way to combat the sexism and racism that is endemic in our schools.
The rationale behind Common Core is one asserting faith that all kids, regardless of their gender, race or background, can and should work their way up to doing complex math whether or not they attend college.
I’ve seen all the arguments for “local control,” but this doesn’t mean we must regress to the wildly varying patchwork of standards that existed before. I don’t see a downside to having consistency—a sense that classrooms from state to state, and from district to district, are on the same page when it comes to math instruction.
That’s no hobgoblin of little minds.
I wish the Common Core standards were in place when I was a kid. Maybe I would have liked math.
We have an opportunity to prevent future generations of kids from falsely thinking they’re simply not good at math or it has no use in their lives. Let’s not squander that opportunity.