What’s So Funny About a Number Sentence?

By Liana Loewus — May 01, 2014 2 min read
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Comedian Louis C.K. recently went on a social-media rant about the Common Core State Standards and testing, as my colleague Catherine Gewertz blogged this week.

Within the Twitter barrage of complaints was a jarring one about how his kids used to love math, but “now it makes them cry.”

The New Yorker ran a piece today about C.K.'s recent standards outrage. Rebecca Mead wrote:

Math looks different these days from when Louis C.K. and his contemporaries attended school, and many similarly aged parents have found themselves puzzled by the manner in which math concepts are being presented to this generation of learners as well as perplexed as to how to offer the most basic assistance when their children are struggling with homework. If you are over the age of twenty and not yourself a teacher, it is unlikely that you will have an intuitive facility with a “number line,” or know how to write a “number sentence,” or even understand what is meant by the omnipresent directive to “show your work.”

Comedian Stephen Colbert, in his faux-conservative persona, made a similar joke in his own common-core bit recently, saying, “If you don’t know what a number sentence is, you could use a word equation or formula paragraph.”

But the thing is, I’m not sure the claim in the New Yorker makes any sense. Despite being more than a decade over the age of 20, I distinctly remember my math teachers telling me to show my work, especially on tests. And when I was a classroom teacher, years before the common core came to be, I certainly taught with number lines and called equations number sentences.

But the kicker? The phrase “number sentence” doesn’t appear in the common standards even once.

It’s true that the common core requires some elementary math topics to be taught in nontraditional ways. I’ve had many discussions with teachers about the emphasis on understanding place value over calculation, and know this can be confusing to parents, too. I’ve heard that teachers are learning to ask new kinds of questions and that they’re still a bit perplexed about the new progression to algebra, which begins earlier than it used to in most places. I’ve heard that some kindergarten teachers don’t quite understand why the first standard in the math common core asks children to count to 100 by 10s. (Note: This language is part of a cluster under the heading “Counting and Cardinality,” so it’s not necessarily the first thing kindergartners need to learn.)

More than anything, I’ve heard talk about the new way of teaching fractions—now beginning in 3rd grade rather than several years later. Three math teachers told me, completely independently of each other, that they themselves didn’t know why “invert and multiply” worked for dividing fractions until they learned how to draw a picture of it.

The common standards do ask elementary students to represent fractions and decimals on left-to-right number lines—and that may be different than what some parents and teachers are used to doing. But the number line itself is not a new concept.

As for number sentences and having students show their work, from what I can tell, these are not keeping anyone up at night.

As always, please share your thoughts by posting a comment below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.