The Uncommon Core

By: Sumeet Goel

January 26, 2016

I don’t claim to be an expert on parenting or education, but like many I had a fair amount of skepticism when I noticed how my daughter did her math problems. Gone were the rote times-tables, memorization, and lengthy explanations that I grew up with – all replaced by number lines and boxes. Exercising patience, I spent some time thinking and reading about the new theories in math education and admit, I became a convert.

As a recovering math geek, mathlete, and math camp attendee, I am rather passionate about numbers. I tend to think numbers are the answer to everything, and numerical data doesn’t just define how the world works, but actually makes the world go round. Numbers offer complex simplicity.

Over the years, I admit to being increasingly frustrated with the quantitative abilities of recent college grads. As part of the interview process, I have traditionally asked candidates to consider non-quantitative, logic and reasoning based brain teasers, as well as some basic quantitative questions. I want to see how facile a candidate is with numbers in his or her head.

Ten years ago, I would ask a candidate:

“If you’re making $45,000 a year and take a new job with 12.5% lower pay, what’s your new salary?”

Today, I‘m lucky if I can get a correct answer to this question, which is much easier than the first:

“If you’re making $40,000 a year and take a new job with 10% lower pay, what’s your new salary?”

I want to see if a college grad can do this math, in her head. It’s not difficult, but it requires doing a couple of different equations, remembering solutions and recalling them in real time, while in an interview fishbowl. Honestly, I feel that most grads today would need a calculator, or at least a pad of paper.

But here’s where I think the math geek and the Common Core overlap. Think of my first question this way:

  • 12.5% is 10% and 2.5%
  • 2.5% is ¼ of 10%
  • 10% is $4,500 and ¼ of that is $1,125
  • So 12.5% is simply $4,500 + $1,125 or $5,625

It’s not that different from the number lines or other basic concepts in the Common Core.

Try another one – a more real world example.  Remember when you used to go to the store and pay in (gasp!) cash?  If your bill was $5.76 and you handed over a $20 bill, how was your change given to you?

(as the cashier hands over 2 dimes and 4 pennies)…… “24 is 6”
(as the cashier then hands over 4 singles)……“and 4 is 10”
(and then as you’re handed a $10 bill)…… “and 10 is 20”

Wait a minute – isn’t that a number line?

When reading more about the Common Core and researching for this blog post, I came across several examples of parents getting up in arms about their child’s tests.  Understandable, and in several instances justified – not because the Common Core was bad but because of the way it was being implemented. I’m not an expert on the Common Core, nor am I a math teacher, but the more I read about it, the more I think it helps kids to understand the underpinnings of the numbers and how they relate to each other. When students are ready to move beyond the basics, they are incredibly well equipped.

My gut tells me that many parental issues stem from two things that actually have little to do with the Common Core itself:

  • It’s different from how we were taught. It can even be confusing at first, especially if you’re used to rote memorization (and middle-aged like many of you reading this blog!).
  • In this day and age of hyper-competitiveness (and dare I say, participant trophies), no one wants to be told that their kid did something wrong. We just want positive reinforcement, in everything.

It’s like that in business too. No one likes change, and the resistance to and fear of change is probably the single greatest impediment to progress. But improvement and success don’t come without change. Pick a successful product, business, even an app. I can guarantee 95 percent of them are different from what they were originally slated to be. Without an openness to change from an original idea or parameters, there would be little to show of our efforts.

Likewise, no one likes criticism or being told, “You’re wrong.” We celebrate entrepreneurs who have forged ahead in the face of adversity. But moving forward requires any good entrepreneur, corporate leader, even head of state, to admit that somewhere along the way she’s made a mistake, revised her original plans or changed direction.

Success comes from being willing to accept change, from welcoming feedback and new ideas. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it certainly is necessary.