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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

False memories: It wasn’t all rote pre-Core 

“Now, what I want is Facts,” said Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

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Before the Common Core, did teachers ask students to memorize facts without understanding? That’s a myth, argues Sandra Stotsky, who helped develop Massachusetts’ pre-Core standards, in the New Boston Post. The best pre-Core standards expected students to understand ideas.

Beginning readers learned “the alphabetic principle — how to use a limited number of written symbols for reading and writing — not memorization of hundreds of ‘sight words’ as if English were written in ideographs,” write Stotsky.

Pre-Core arithmetic teachers also have been accused — falsely, writes Stotsky — of  stressing memorization without understanding.

Barry Garelick blew up that false charge earlier this year by pointing out what had been in his old arithmetic book (Arithmetic We Need by William A. Brownell) from the 1950s, as well as in others:  “With respect to the math books of earlier eras, they started with teaching of the standard algorithm first. Alternatives to the standards using drawings or other techniques were given afterwards to provide further information on how and why the algorithm worked.”

Repetition and drill can be a good thing, writes Stotsky. Young math students need to achieve “automaticity” with number facts to build understanding, according to a National Mathematics Advisory Panel report in 2008. It concluded:

The development of conceptual knowledge and procedural skills is intertwined, each supporting the other. Fast access to number combinations, prime numbers, and so forth supports problem solving because it frees working memory resources that can then be focused on other aspects of problem solving.

All children should “memorize some things in the primary or elementary grades (including some dates in history), as well as understand why they should do so,” Stotsky concludes. That was true in the past and it’s true now.

The Pioneer Institute blames Massachusetts’ Common Core-like standards for the “deterioration” of English and math scores.

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