Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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Relevance is one key to understanding Common Core


With the plan of starting off this post with a good joke, I invite you to watch the insightful video on YouTube called “I Choose C,” which was written and produced by RN Gutierrez, an eighth-grade honors English-language arts teacher in the Palm Springs Unified School District in California.

“I Choose C” by RN Gutierrez

This is what could happen if schools waste time teaching students skills that don’t help them advance to the next level, whether that’s a job, as spoofed in the video, college, or the next grade level in school.

In many ways, the Common Core was designed to eliminate useless skills we teach kids over and over just because we’ve taught them for years. Furthermore, new tests should go a long way to eliminating the guessing strategies kids use when they can’t remember an answer. The Common Core steers them away from memorizing and using other tricks and toward developing strategies for solving problems. It’s more like what happens in the real world, at least if you believe the video. Remember: no good joke is ever completely without truth.

For example, Maryland’s math standard for fifth grade, 4.A.1.b, says in terms of students’ knowledge of statistics, “Collect, organize, and display data … Organize and display data in stem-and-leaf plots … Assessment limits: Use no more than 20 data points and whole numbers (0 – 100).”

In the Common Core, searching for “stem-and-leaf plot” will come up empty. Stem-and-leaf plots, an example of which is shown to the right, have been completely removed from the Common Core.

I imagine Maryland’s fifth-grade teachers have lesson plans galore that use stem-and-leaf plots, which will go to waste under the Common Core. This may be a source of concern for some teachers, and they may grieve their losses, according to a second-grade teacher quoted on a famous blog (our report).

But the upside is, stem-and-leaf plots are completely useless. They aren’t used by anybody, and people would never be paid for producing reports with stem-and-leaf plots on any job in the modern world. They were essentially a pedagogical tool for teaching place value, but they don’t even do that all too well.

At best, they look like a histogram (see here), but the bars on the histogram, if the stem-and-leaf plot is turned sideways, are inflexibly grouped by 10s, rather than by a more appropriate interval for the data. Under the Common Core, solution strategies will be more flexible, allowing kids and teachers to handle new and unique situations that might develop when working with real data.

To show you how useless stem-and-leaf plots were, neither Excel, SPSS, nor Mathematica even has a direct function to produce them, though they can be produced using separate packages and users have invented various workarounds. These tools are, far and away, the tools of choice when it comes to analyzing and presenting data in the real world.

That’s merely one example in math of how the Common Core makes school more relevant: eliminate the worthless topics so more time and energy can be spent on stuff that matters. The Common Core includes line plots, scatter plots, and real histograms instead of phony ones represented by stem-and-leaf plots.

The coverage is spread throughout fifth through eighth grade so that it can be covered more in-depth and students can get more experience with important ways to represent data than they would have been able to get under a set of standards, like Maryland’s old state curriculum, that forced them to cover so many different types of graphs.

James Dittes, an English and German teacher at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tenn., observes that the standards are more relevant and universal than what states had in the past:

Prior to (the Common Core), I had 90 school days to cover 80 state standards before exams in literacy and writing, in addition to prep for the national ACT exam. Covering such a broad base in such limited time left little time for deeper learning and investigation. … With (Common Core) I teach 50 standards.

So cry if you want about the loss of stem-and-leaf plots, but when this year’s fifth graders get to the job market in a very global economy, they’ll be thankful we didn’t waste precious time in their formative years learning about useless plot types that nobody in the real world actually uses.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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