Engineer looks at CCSS math grade 2

Jeff Severt of Cary, N.C., writes that he has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and has studied differential equations, yet he shows on a viral Facebook post that he has no ability to teach second-grade math, even to a relative, his son.

Jeff Sebert via Facebook

His wife posted the comments he made on a subtraction worksheet his son was asked to complete, and we’ve posted her photo at right. It comes from Facebook. As you can see, his complaint is about the Common Core and about how his son’s teacher has turned a simple subtraction problem, which he can solve in “five seconds,” into a complicated exercise that even he can’t understand.

This is a perfect example of why Mr Severt is a parent and his son’s teacher is a second-grade teacher.

Although Mr Severt chose to comment publicly on the worksheet instead of discussing it with his son’s teacher and helping to advance his education rather than making a public laughingstock of his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, his son’s teacher, if asked, might have explained that the number-line method is much more than a strategy for solving subtraction problems. It’s a way to make kids think about the underlying mathematical operation involved in subtraction.

I’ve never spoken to Mr Severt, but I would bet he’s one of the people who complain that kids can’t make change without the help of a cash register. Yet now he is complaining about a second-grade teacher, working with kids who are just now learning to subtract three-digit numbers, showing them exactly how they will later make change in their lives without the help of a cash register.

Can we please give this a rest? The number-line method is one way for kids to think about subtraction. Certainly, I would be fired if I actually did it this way in my job, but kids need time to learn. They need to understand the underlying mathematics. They need to see that the answer comes out the same, regardless of which correct strategy is employed to solve the problem. They do not need to worry about losing their job, although given Mr Severt’s expressed frustration, I wouldn’t want to work for him.

And then, there’s Education Week, which gave this misguided complaint more than an inch of column space. Once again, the press completely fails to understand what’s going on here. The Common Core is teaching kids to think about the underlying mathematics, whereas the “old school” way just had them memorizing tables of math facts.

I can’t believe some people actually think the old way was better when they are the same people who complain that “kids today” can’t make change without the help of a cash register. The reason they can’t make change, just in case you’re wondering, is that they have no sense of the underlying mathematics. They punch 427 – 316 into a calculator, hit the equal sign, and read 111 as the answer, just as assuredly as Mr Severt crunches it out in the long subtraction method.

The problem comes when they hit the wrong key. Without that understanding of the underlying mathematics, without having thought about the mathematics behind subtraction, instead of just finding the quickest way to get an answer that brings with it not a shred of mathematical understanding, we would end up with yet another generation without great numeracy skills or the ability to even consider technical jobs.

The same is true with the English language arts standards: they encourage kids to think about what they’re doing. So writes Damon Z Ray, an English and history teacher at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, in the Tennesseean, here:

Under the Common Core, lessons in metaphors take on new life, and English teachers get the space to empower and embolden our students’ ideas. It used to be sufficient to just identify a metaphor in writing, or possibly even one in another artistic medium. Now, we’re given space to create our own metaphors, to actually apply this knowledge to something real that reflects the way a student sees the world.

Explain the different strategies you can use to subtract three digit numbers and why those strategies are valid for subtraction. See Common Core second-grade math standard 2.NBT.B.7 for more information.

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