Run! Hide your children! Protect them from math with letters!

Normally, I don’t write blog entries during work hours. I sometimes post stuff then, because it gets more traffic if it’s posted mid-day, but I don’t write. Except sometimes, when I come accross something that’s so ridiculous, so offensive, so patently mind-bogglingly stupid that I can’t work until I say something. Today is one of those days.

In the US, many school systems have been adopting something called the Common Core. The Common Core is an attempt to come up with one basic set of educational standards that are applied consistently in all of the states. This probably sounds like a straightforward, obvious thing. In my experience, most Europeans are actually shocked that the US doesn’t have anything like this. (In fact, at best, it’s historically been standardized state-by-state, or even school district by school district.) In the US, a high school diploma doesn’t really mean anything: the standards are so widely varied that you can’t count on much of anything!

The total mishmash of standards is obviously pretty dumb. The Common Core is an attempt to rationalize it, so that no matter where you go to school, there should be some basic commonality: when you finish 5th grade, you should be able to read at a certain level, do math at a certain level, etc.

Obviously, the common core isn’t perfect. It isn’t even necessarily particularly good. (The US being the US, it’s mostly focused on standardized tests.) But it’s better than nothing.

But again, the US being the US, there’s a lot of resistance to it. Some of it comes from the flaky left, which worries about how common standards will stifle the creativity of their perfect little flower children. Some of it comes from the loony right, which worries about how it’s a federal takeover of the education system which is going to brainwash their kiddies into perfect little socialists.

But the worst, the absolute inexcusable worst, are the pig-ignorant jackasses who hate standards because it might turn children into adults who are less pig-ignorant than their parents. The poster child for this bullshit attitude is State Senator Al Melvin of Arizona. Senator Melvin repeats the usual right-wing claptrap about the federal government, and goes on
to explain what he dislikes about the math standards.

The math standards, he says, teach “fuzzy math”. What makes it fuzzy math? Some of the problems use letters instead of numbers.

The state of Arizona should reject the Common Core math standards, because the math curicculum sometimes uses letters instead of numbers. After all, everyone knows that there’s nothing more to math than good old simple arithmetic! Letters in math problems are a liberal conspiracy to convince children to become gay!

The scary thing is that I’m not exaggerating here. An argument that I have, horrifyingly, heard several times from crazies is that letters are used in math classes to try to introduce moral relativism into math. They say that the whole reason for using letters is because with numbers, there’s one right answer. But letters don’t have a fixed value: you can change what the letters mean. And obviously, we’re introducing that into math because we want to make children think that questions don’t have a single correct answer.

No matter where in the world you go, you’ll find stupid people. I don’t think that the US is anything special when it comes to that. But it does seem like we’re more likely to take people like this, and put them into positions of power. How does a man who doesn’t know what algebra is get put into a position where he’s part of the committee that decides on educational standards for a state? What on earth is wrong with people who would elect someone like this?

Senator Melvin isn’t just some random guy who happened to get into the state legislature. He’s currently the front-runner in the election for Arizona’s next governor. Hey Arizona, don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, you should make sure that your governor knows high school algebra? I mean, really, do you think that if he can’t understand a variable in an equation, he’s going to be able to understand the state budget?!

27 thoughts on “Run! Hide your children! Protect them from math with letters!”

      1. That’s not as much of a joke as you might think. Back around 2003 or so, I was attending an event on a college campus and actually overheard 2 students discussing how appalling it was if, as their professor claimed, the math techniques they were studying had originated in the Middle East, and how they weren’t sure they believed this far-fetched claim.

        I was sorely tempted to tell them the origin of the word “alcohol”, but they wandered out of range before I could get close enough to engage them in conversation.

      2. That has actually been thought of; the following satire appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT —

        NOTHING TO FEAR by Kate Gladstone

        An arithmetic teacher yesterday was arrested.
        He was writing Arabic digits on the board:
        Introducing, so the faculty has attested,
        A foreign practice, Eastern and abhorred.
        He’d infiltrated a weapon of math instruction
        Into each trusting student’s tender brain,
        Dooming their innocent psyches to destruction:
        A greater cultural threat than Quiche Lorraine.
        Give thanks for the day our leaders outlawed zero —
        If they hadn’t, just imagine where we’d be:
        (We might even have some kind of decimal money)
        So join us in keeping America zero-free.

        That Islamic numeral system gives us fidgets —
        But its origin is more alien still, you’ll find:
        For the Hindus taught the Muslims all their digits,
        And the Hindus have a heathen turn of mind.
        The Hindu theologians all are smitten
        With endless empty circles and the void:
        So if you’ve the intelligence of a kitten,
        You see why zero’s got to be destroyed.
        Give thanks for the day our leaders outlawed zero —
        If they hadn’t, just imagine where we’d be:
        (We might even be bottling our cola drinks in metric)
        So join us in keeping America zero-free.

        The unpatriotic zeroist insurrection
        Has a vast, pervasive, secret underground
        That quite fortunately isn’t beyond detection:
        There’s a sign by which the enemy can be found.
        Can your neighbor total up his grocery prices
        A little faster than you feel he should?
        Then your neighbor is a cause of the present crisis:
        Denounce him, and you’ll do the nation good!
        Give thanks for the day our leaders outlawed zero —
        If they hadn’t, just imagine where we’d be:
        (Arithmetic might not be a college major)
        So join us in keeping America zero-free.

  1. I don’t believe this is specially characteristic of the United States. In my country, our Prime Minister is famous for saying such pearls as (talking about climate change):

    “I know little of this, but I guess my cousin knows.” – his cousin is a Physicist – “And he said: I have brought in ten of the most important scientists of the world and none has assured me the weather will be tomorrow. How can anyone say what will happen in the world in 300 years?”

    This shows the incredible scientific illiteracy of our Prime Minister. One can trust most climate experts and believe in climate change or not, but to believe you can not predict tendencies or statistical behavior if you can not predict individual events just shows your ignorance about the last century of developments in science.

    Ironically, this guy is responsible for our economic policy. Try to predict tomorrow’s stock market behavior!

    This guy is famous for this kind of illiterate comments.

  2. Europe (or the EU) doesn’t have common high school curriculum either (or if it does, no one is aware of it). Every country has their own system, some of them even have different number of years in what is high school, middle school etc.

    (I’m comparing US states to European countries because they have comparable sizes)

  3. M: Yes, but comparable sizes don’t mean anything. The US is a single country. European nations are, too, so they should educate as they see fit. Of course, some do it better than others. But within a country, the standards should be the same. Different standards for different states creates an educational gap in our society; we can’t risk widening it further than it already is. Educated people should make the choices about education: people who understand the uses of math, science, writing, etc.

    1. By that token, one could argue the same for the European Union; if you are going to share an economic model, you should have uniform mathematics., no? Otherwise you end up with gaps.

      That said, one of the points of the American design is that states do not uniformly adopt the same standards; they are free to experiment and adjust as needed, and to borrow from neighboring states when they see something better. This might lead to gaps, but the diversity should also lead to more progress as a whole (after all, with a single standard in a country of this size, you are unlikly to pick the single right method at any given time, and course correction will be very difficult)

    2. From a legal and historical perspective the US isn’t exactly a single country but a federation of 50 states with their own constitutions and elected assemblies. That’s kind of the practical problem in setting educational standards. It’s really more analogous to the EU as a whole rather than any particular nation within it.

  4. Ignoring the EU, I don’t think there’s been a single federation of nations that has been remotely as cohesive as the US. The US issues passports without any note of state origin, has a unified military and unified relations with foreign nations. On a lower level, the flag that Americans wave is the Red, White and Blue, not any subnational flag, and the elections they argue about are for national president and seats in the national legislature. There are many countries with strong subnational states, like Canada and India, and certainly if the US is a federation of nations, so is the UK.

    If you’re comparing it to the EU, I might argue the EU is more anomalous then the US.

    1. My US passport says my place of birth was “Wisconsin, USA”, and not just “USA” so states really do matter even there. As for flags, it really depends on the state. In California, where I currently live, it is quite popular for individuals to fly the state flag which happens to be that of the “Bear Republic”, an independent Californian nation that existed briefly in the 1840s. I think it is mostly tongue-in-cheek rather than a sign of a real separatist movement though.

      1. That passport question is not about the emphasis upon what state you are from. It is about identification and identifying you from others who may have the same, or a similar name. In many other countries, it’s not just about listing the city you were born in. It’s about listing that AND the names of BOTH parents, as well as where THEY were born, too. Again, this is for IDENTIFICATION purposes. As far as having “Wisconsin, USA,” that is because you, yourself, answered the question that way. Most people put their city and state. In my case, I also put only “Kansas, USA” only because when I was young, my mother said that the town in Kansas where I was born was most known for its federal prison, and she thought, therefore that it would be better to leave that off. Again, this passport information is for IDENTIFICATION, but NOT because of some kind of “loyalty” to one state or another!

    2. Technically, the US is a federation and the EU is a confederation. A confederation is much looser — the EU countries even retain their own militaries. (The long-term goal of the EU’s founders was indeed a real federation, but that hasn’t happened yet.) In a federation, there are multiple levels of government but individual states/provinces/whatever, cannot have their own policies on things like currency or foreign relations. It’s a single country, though, just not a unitary state (like France) in which the national government handles most things. All of which is to say that a common curriculum makes much more sense in the US than the EU.

  5. Some missing of the point here. Correct, there is no common school curriculum throughout the EU. Maybe that would be a good idea, maybe not. Might be difficult with 27 countries and over 20 official languages. There is a common curriculum in at least some of those countries – I don’t know about all. Again, not really relevant.

    The point is that none of those countries are trying to ban algebra.

  6. Not only does he not know high school algebra, he doesn’t know why that might be a problem. Which suggests that he wouldn’t have the wit to consult people who do understand the math.

    1. Precisely. Thanks. It’s like having legislators who can’t understand that an ocean absorbs heat from the sun, and radiates it back into the atmosphere over some length of time. I’ve read their arguments with climate scientists, insisting the idea is fantasy. Argh.

  7. Kudos for sharing your opinion (in the article)! It’s nice to know there are some logical people out there. It amazes me the ridiculous spins people can put on some of the most basic things, like math concepts. I think most of those “concerned” people have too much time on their hands and should try and do something more productive with their time, like actually volunteer in a classroom and help teach some of these concepts to try to help educate and make kids’ lives better, rather than just criticize something they really don’t understand. People are always afraid of change, especially when, yeah, kids today are being educated at a higher level than ever before. They have to be to be able to survive in the technologically advanced and information overloaded society we live in today. And no, our system isn’t perfect, but you can’t make improvements without a lot of trial and error. I’ve got news for the Senator, algebraic concepts are just the tip of the iceburg!

  8. Over here in central VA, there’s a rather different objection to the common core: The standardized tests, and teaching to them, are apparently becoming quite burdensome to the schools and students.

    1. I agree with that, at least partially. I hate the focus on standardized tests.

      But the unfortunate fact it, in the US, we’re largely focused on test-based standards. Right now, to graduate high school, a student in NY has to pass the regents, while a student in NJ has to pass the much easier MBTS, and a student in Ohio has to pass the Iowa Basics, and in PA, they have to pass CTBS – and each of those tests covers a completely different range of material – it’s completely crazy.

      It means that there is absolutely no way for a college or an employer to have any guess at what skills or background someone has based on a high school diploma.

      When I graduated high school, you could easily pass the NJ MBS test without being able to write a proper sentence. It was strictly a multiple choice based test. You could be very, very close to illiterate, and pull off a passing score! At the same time, in NY where I live now, my 8th grade daughter needs to pass a regents exam this year, and it’s much harder than the MBS required for graduation in NJ.

      That kind of mismatch really is a problem.

  9. My biggest issue is with “mental math”. A lot of what is taught are conclusions I reached during my school years but many other elementary students never did. I have watched my daughter go from being able to understand and do long subtraction (numbers larger than 100) with borrowing. A concept she was able to grasp in about 4 hours to spending 6 months relearning mental math and still not being able to explain how to do it. I have abandoned her getting anything useful out of her current curriculum and have resorted to her working on Singapore math at night in order to get her prepared for life. She has gone from being an outstanding student in math to being “Dad I am just not that good at math.” Math is beautiful and through it the universe can be read. We are killing it for a generation. …and don’t get me started on what has been dropped from the curriculum for middle school and high school. When you don’t have actual mathematicians design the curriculum how is it supposed to be relevant.

  10. The state of Arizona should reject the Common Core math standards, because the math curicculum sometimes uses letters instead of numbers.

    Hm, what about these pesky *symbols* ?! I mean this strange +,-,*,= and, God forbid, the fraction stroke. And *Greek* letters instead patriotic American ones.

    Unfortunately, more than 50 years later it seems to be still true: .

    And an awful insight into making schoolbooks:

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