Observations, Part 1: Teaching Common Core Math, or Why Asians Do Better in Math

As some may know, this writer works part-time as a substitute teacher in a semi-urban pre-K through eighth grade public school.  The school is considered the “country club” of the district and consistently is perhaps the best academically performing school.  The student body is quite diverse.  I can count the number of white kids on my fingers and toes, but that may be pushing it.  The remainder are mainly Hispanic and Asian.

Remembering back to when we all likely learned multiplication, it happened in third grade.  I was usually asked to learn my multiplication tables by rote starting with the very easy one-times tables and graduating up to the difficult twelve-times tables.  Along the way, the two, five, ten, and eleven times tables were the easiest.  Well, the eleven until you got to 11 times 11, then it took some thought.  The bottom line: we learned our times tables up through 12 times 12.

Not speaking for anyone else here, but my third grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, was very good.  Incidentally, and this is a digression, but did anyone notice that when a teacher is accused of having an affair with a student (which I do not condone- it is pedophilia), the teacher gets more sympathy if they are somewhat hot and student gets a “thumbs up?”  But if the teacher is not so hot, they get pilloried and people think, “What was that kid thinking?”  I bring this up only because at the tender age of eight, I had a crush on Mrs. Williams.  Anyway…

Mrs. Williams would use flash cards and quiz us in class.  Sometimes it was row versus row (there were always rows, never “tables” for cooperative learning) and sometimes it was boys versus girls.  Of course, today one cannot do boys versus girls because it is potentially sexist and there may be a transgender kid to consider and it would be unfair to them and the rest of the class to have their own team.  Another digression: I once had a transgender kid who jokingly got into a slapping match with a girl.  When I told him that boys don’t hit girls, the entire class screamed “he is a girl.”  After the blush left my face, I thought: “What’s the matter with that statement?  ‘He is a girl.'” [Emphasis mine]  Anyway, I’ve never made that mistake again, but I digress.

I remember one cold winter day when it was boys versus girls with the flashcards.  As Mrs. Williams flashed them, you had to immediately give the answer.  Any delay forced you into the walk of shame back to your seat as your sexual team mates hollered at you.  I remember only because I was tossed out for having my hands behind my back since Mrs. Williams thought I was using my fingers to determine the answers.  I was actually warming my hands on a very good working radiator.

Flash ahead to 2016 and I am teaching third graders their nine times tables, or so I thought.  I had to read the teacher’s math manual three times before I understood what I was up against.  It appears that one’s nine times tables have a pattern and, under Common Core, these patterns are supposed to be learned and pointed out because “different kids use different strategies.”  So, I put the pattern on the board in ascending order:  1×9= 9, 2×9=18, and so on to 10×9=90.

Now, stay tuned for the pattern.  When multiplying by nine, we forget about the nine.  What is the other factor in, for example, 4 times 9?  It is 4.  What is one less than 4?  It is three.  What plus three equals nine?  It is six.  Therefore the answer to 9 times 4 is 36 because 3 is one less than 4 and three plus six equals nine.  How silly of me- the answer is 36.  Of course, this raised some curious looks from 22 eager third-graders.

A few days later, I was explaining this to a seventh grade math teacher, Mr. J, or Dr. J since he has a PhD in education.  He said that, yes, this was a quirk of mathematics.  But, I noted, it is discriminatory against eleven because 11 times 9 is 99 and 9+9 equals 18, not 9.  He said that was true, but to “just ignore the 11’s.”  That is discrimination against 11’s.  In fact, it is discrimination against any double digit number when the second digit is 1 when using the nine times tables.  For example, 9 times 21 is 189 and 1+8+9 is NOT 9.  Hence, the Common Core strategy is not only discriminatory, but it is false and obviously the product of someone with too much time on their hands.

After thoroughly confusing Mrs. B’s third grade class that day, there was a voice of reason.  One young Bengali girl asked, “Can’t we just memorize them up to nine times twelve?”  Being the renegade I am, I told her I gladly endorsed that idea, found a set of flash cards and pitted the boys against the girls.

This is an absolutely true story, although names have been changed to protect the innocent.  It also helps explain why Asians do better than their American counterparts in math and why, if all else fails, it is best to sit next to the Asian kid in math class.