With the hype about Powerball, I am reminded of a quote, that the lottery is a tax on those who can’t do math. Further, the meme that is going around Facebook that if we divide the current Powerball pot by the population of the U.S. we all would get $4.3 million, also shows a lack of math ability. (Although the counter meme is grammatically wrong, and many posting the original meme are doing it as a ruse). What is worth looking at deeper is the lack of understanding of big numbers and probabilistic thinking in the U.S., which our education system has not yet solved.
Education Can Be the Solution
Most articles about education will start by saying there is a “failure” in our education system, and then start finger pointing. Then those with set ideologies will start to bash each other. I am not going to start there, as that will not solve the problem. Education is not inherently the “problem”. In fact, it should be clear that a lack of education, is the problem. And while many are quick to blame the Common Core, insinuating that there is something wrong with what it covers; in many ways I believe the problem is what it doesn’t yet cover.
Common Core is Missing Common Sense Understanding of Big Numbers
Almost five years ago, I wrote a paper titled “Missing a ‘Trillion’: How Do We Know If We are Teaching the Right Things?” I wrote this relatively soon after Common Core had been developed, but not yet widely adopted, and most states still had their own educational content standards. I wanted to see how well our standards were preparing students to understand big numbers that they will be exposed to in the media, and which affect their lives. In my research, I could not find a single set of standards, including Common Core, that required high school graduates to know that a “trillion” meant. My article was self-published on SSRN without formal peer-review (although I did solicit some informal review), got no media attention, and has thus far only been read 12 times. But, I think it is clear that it is prescient to current events.
We need to understand large number. Our national debt today is close to $19 TRILLION, up from the $16 TRILLION when I wrote the article. The meme that needs to go around is that this means that each person in the United States owes nearly $60,000. It also means that it would behoove Common Core to work to be more “core”, by having an explicit standard regarding the language of large numbers that affect our lives. But we should not confuse the lack of an important standard, for “failure”.
Common Core is Succeeding Better with Probabilistic Thinking
A math teacher I trust, and who has been involved with helping to implement the Smarter Balanced tests, shared that he truly appreciated the greater emphasis on statistics in the Common Core, compared to previous standards in California. Further, the new emphasis on having a better conceptual understanding of fractions, is a critical foundation to understanding probabilities. So, while it is actually too early to see the ultimate results of Common Core, and there is also still too much conflation between the standards and many of the curricula used to teach the standards; I still believe that much of the attempt is a step in the right direction. But, that the next revision of the standards needs to follow a greater scientific process, so that they can be engineered better to clear goals that will benefit the United States to a greater degree.