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Bruno: Unfamiliar Approach To Math Might Be A Feature, Not A Bug

O-COMMON-CORE-MATH-570By now there is a good chance that you've seen the 'Common Core' math problem pictured on the right, posted online by a "Frustrated Parent" baffled as to why his child was not allowed to simply solve the problem using the standard subtraction algorithm.

Opponents of the Common Core have used that problem as evidence that the new standards are confusing and poorly written (or worse).

But is this problem really indicative of a problem with the CCSS? Or are critics confusing a curricular problem - a poor choice of instructional methods and materials - for a problem with the standards?

Even if you've been paying careful attention and asking the experts, you could be forgiven for being unsure.

Back at the end of March, Sarah Garland at the Hechinger Report asked two of the lead writers of the new math standards about this problem and was told that it "is a complete reversal of the truth to call this a Common Core problem" because "the Common Core does not require this method" of solving subtraction problems.

This seemed to me like a plausible answer until, about a month later, Libby Nelson wrote about the issue for Vox. She talked to different experts - including another author of the standards - and concluded that the problem's complicated approach to subtraction is a feature under the CCSS, not a bug.

According to Nelson's experts, this 'number line' method for solving subtraction problems is a way of promoting greater conceptual understanding of how and why the standard algorithm works. I'm not a math teacher, so it is possible I'm missing some of the nuances here. Nevertheless, these two reports appear to involve two different reporters asking two different groups of experts about whether this problem is "Common Core-aligned" and reaching two very different - and mutually exclusive - conclusions.

Maybe one of these reports is wrong and the other is right. Or maybe there is no fact of the matter about what the Common Core standards "really" say about this particular math problem.

In any case, even if the CCSS are not as goofy as some opponents charge, they as also apparently not as clear as many supporters claim. So perhaps we can forgive Louis CK at least some of his frustration and confusion. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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