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Circus of Fools


The mother of a 1st Grader made a big splash this week for being fed-up with Common Core. Her viral Twitter rants led to an appearance on Fox and Friends, followed by more media attention. Not surprisingly, she soon became the new poster child for the right wing opponents of the national curriculum standards. However, in all of the run-up to her new-found stardom, the one thing that no one did – not her supporters, Fox News or the many media outlets that echoed the story – was check the validity of what she was complaining about.

Here's a link to one of the “news” stories cheering her on. It includes video of her segment on the show, which is hosted by Tucker Carlson, who has decades of experience in journalism and is also a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

As you'll see, the segment proves very little, beyond the fact that the mother does not understand basic math very well. The mother points to fairly simple math problems that had been marked wrong on her daughter's 1st-grade assignments and complains that she doesn't even understand what the questions are asking.

The two examples cited are a place value problem asking to add only the ten values in an addition problem, and another which uses a visualization technique to help in learning to use grouping to manage larger numbers. Clearly this is not revolutionary stuff, nor was it invented by the people who designed Common Core standards.

The questions were in fact very clear, very relevant to basic math and the answers were quite obviously wrong. It's unfortunate that the mother was not able to explain them to her daughter, but the whirlwind surrounding this farce seemed to suggest this.

This whole ordeal speaks to a few issues, not the least of which is the sad manner in which today's news media works. I have no doubt that Carlson could see this for what it is, and since he's always demonstrated himself to be highly-intelligent  – as well as frequently impatient with others who he doesn't think are – I can only assume that it was painful for him to conduct the interview with a straight face and to refrain from telling the mother what he really thought (thank god your daughter's school doesn't limit her math lessons to only stuff that you yourself can understand).

That pain, however, is surely mitigated by the millions of dollars he is paid to stay on script and deliver the sort of dreck the show's viewers tune in for. Were he a serious news man, he wouldn't be on Fox and Friends – or MSNBC for that matter, his previous employer. Then again, it's unlikely he'd be a multimillionaire either.

The way corporate media works in the modern age is that the viewers drive the programming and with little regard for story merit or validity. Producers monitor Twitter, Facebook and search engine trends to see what's hot at the moment and then they package segments to reflect that buzz. Rather than doing the work and then driving the debate, as in the past, today they simply respond to it.

Someone's gone viral on Twitter ranting about something our viewers love to bash? Quick, book them on the show! Facts are secondary, if they're even considered at all. Fox has legions of right wing crackpots who will gobble up anything negative about Common Core, the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi, etc. The vast majority of them don't care whether the arguments are valid or if the information being presented is true. They tune in to have their biases confirmed, Fox obliges and companies buy commercials spots.

I'm not just picking on Fox. If MSNBC has a chance to rail against the Tea Party or an energy company, they are nearly as willing to overlook gaps in reality. As for CNN, they can probably take the blame for lowering the bar in the first place, by mainstreaming the concept of entertainment as news and giving precious airtime during news broadcasts to hackneyed celebrity gossip.

As for the actual issue that was supposed to be addressed, I'm not suggesting that Common Core is perfect – far from it. In my opinion, there is still far too much emphasis on standardized testing, which involves too many private, for-profit corporations who then become dangerously-intertwined in the education process as schools – eager to do well on the tests such companies create – eagerly purchase their materials to use throughout the year.

The standards have also been criticized by very credible educators for being too prescriptive, rather than descriptive, especially compared to other highly-successful countries that they were supposedly benchmarked against. There has also been criticism of the way it was “backmapped” from what college-ready seniors should know, without enough consideration as to whether many of the skills were age appropriate at each developmental stage, especially at the earliest grade levels.

Perhaps a slower implementation without factoring the scores of standardized tests for the first few years, as some educators and administrators have argued, would be an appropriate way to ensure a smooth and productive transition in which the bugs could be worked out absent such high stakes.

These are issues and questions with merit and there is a nearly-infinite supply of qualified professionals eager to engage in productive debate. Unfortunately, that does not lend itself well to Twitter's 140-character limit or a 5-minute news segment. In today's talking point society, rants clearly rule, while intellectual discourse is quickly becoming a quaint relic.

As for the mother, her time on Twitter and Fox would have been better spent researching the subjects her daughter was having trouble with. In less than 60 seconds, I was able to find and download a PDF packet that helped to explain the very subjects mentioned, as well as the other criteria for 1st grade math in common core, one of the many advantages to a standardized curriculum.

Being an involved parent means that on occasion, you have to be willing to put away your pride and roll up your sleeves. I have no shame in admitting that I sometimes have to do a little bit of research to help my 5th grader with some homework subject I haven't seen in 30 years. It might be easier to blame teachers, administrators and the system at large, or to make a fool out of myself on the public stage; however, none of those things are going to help prepare him to enter the most competitive economy in human history – and neither will dumbing down the curriculum just because it would make some parents more comfortable.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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