By Alex Saitta

May 21, 2012

Having children in elementary school, I see the state’s public school curriculum and its educational standards in action on a day to day basis.

I believe education should take place in three steps. First, students should be taught the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Second, students should be taught to use those basic skills in a critical thinking or analytical way. Third, students should be taught to communicate what they’ve learned.

The state standards stress critical thinking. For instance, a PASS test question might be, if you had 7,905 apples and 85 sacks, how many apples would you put in each shack? First the student must figure out division is the necessary operation (critical thinking). Second, he must know long division (basic skill)

I like that the state standards stress critical thinking, but believe the critical thinking aspect is introduced too early, before many students have mastered the basic skills. To watch my fourth grader face such a question, and struggle over the long division, I often think the state has allowed the cart to get in front of the horse.

The mistake the state has made is it is trying to teach basic skills and critical thinking at the same time. This is confusing many elementary students. As a result, some aren’t mastering the basic skills, especially those whose parents don’t work with them at home.

First, teach the basic skills by drilling students on addition, division, fractions, decimals, etc. For example, teach long division, giving worksheets of long division problems, and then test students with 20 long division problems. Little to no critical thinking, nor analysis, just long division.

After long division and the other basic mathematical skills are ingrained in students, in the higher grades, then introduce how those skills can be used in a critical thinking or analytical way.

I also value the variety of skills introduced to students by the state curriculum. Broad knowledge is needed once they enter the workforce. But again, too many skills are introduced in the lower grades. It is overwhelming to a 3^{rd} and 4^{th} grader. For instance, a skill like long division is introduced, and before the students have mastered it, the curriculum is off to the next skill and often a higher level skill like geometry.

This is another reason why some students aren’t as strong in the basic skills as they should be. Myself, I would not introduce geometry at such a young age, and spend another week on long division or multiplication facts instead.

Unfortunately, the new national curriculum, known as Common Core, could make this worse. Some of the principles stressed in fourth grade math by the Common Core will be: reason abstractly and quantitatively, use appropriate tools strategically and look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

This needs to be questioned by the state legislature and the state superintendent of education as the state moves closer and closer to adopting the Common Core.