Fixing Our Schools isn’t Easy, but 2 Plus 2 Should Be

barry currin, beaverdamusa.comA concept called “New Math” was the educational controversy when I was an elementary student some 40 years ago.

I recall very little about it. I do remember the teacher drawing two overlapping circles on the board with some numbers in one, some more numbers in the other, and still a few more in the football-shaped area where the circles overlapped. These were called sets and subsets.

New Math made no sense to me. I guess it didn’t make any sense to anybody else either, because it fell by the wayside after a short, confusing run.

Today, we have the controversial Common Core Standards issue. And just like every issue since the birth of Facebook, the vitriolic debate spews on the airwaves and Internet with the loudest opponents showing the least regard for the facts.

I don’t know if Common Core will help, or if it is just the “New Math” of the 21st Century. I do know, however, we have to do something to fix our educational system because even the simplest concepts are falling through the cracks.

Here is a perfect — but not isolated – example.

Recently, I walked up to a concession stand where high school students were selling food. I was met by this girl who was at least a junior, probably a senior. I ordered two hamburgers, two orders of fries and two drinks. The burgers were $3, the fries were $2 and the drinks were $1.

She painstakingly wrote my order down in her little receipt book. Then she looked at the prices posted on the wall and started making these little imaginary tick marks in the air with her ink pen. She had a far-away look in her eye. Her lips moved the slightest bit.

The whole time I’m standing there dangling $12 in front of her.

After several seconds, a bright smile beamed across her face. I was expecting to hear her yell, “Eureka” and announce the grand total, but she didn’t. Instead, she said, “I want to make sure and get this right.”

With the sleight-of-hand move that would make David Copperfield blush, she magically produced her phone, and with the speed attained from sending 12 million text messages she pulled up the calculator app and proceeded to add three, plus three, plus two, plus two, plus one, plus one.

Our educational system has failed miserably when a 17-year-old high school student cannot add six one-digit whole numbers in his or her head. I make fun of her, but she isn’t alone and we all know it. Just give a store clerk $10.03 when the bill is $6.03 and watch the confusion ensue until the computerized cash register solves the mystery.

When I was in school, we never could understand why a teacher wouldn’t let us use a calculator on tests. Looking back, it’s easy to realize now she was trying to teach us math, not how to use a calculator. (Thank goodness we got past sets and subsets.)

Before you email me, know that I’m no elitist snob. But everybody should be able to add to 12. Everybody can’t, and that is why we need some kind of minimum standards for students.

Even if the baseline for passing math is the ability to do simple addition without the help of an iPhone, then so be it. Anything would be a step in the right direction. We need to do something, and we need to do it quickly. Because, next year, those hamburgers may be $3.25, and when that happens, the concession stand business is going to be in an even bigger state of confusion.

About Barry Currin

Barry tries to be funny and poignant, and he's usually satisfied when he succeeds with one or the other. (Being both is awesome. And sometimes that happens.) Email him:

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