Why I Would Fail Third Grade Math

CJ Westerberg, September 30, 2012 9:31 AM


Editor's Note:  The post below is a great example why I am a fan of shadowing classes.
In fact, this one reminds me of too many scenes from Joseph Heller's classic, Catch-22. .
The post below is an excerpt from Joseph Ganem's book, The Two Headed Quarter:
How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy
Dr. Ganem is a professor of physics.  See links to his book and website below. 

                                                                                       - C.J. Westerberg

"It's for your own good."

Why I Would Fail Third Grade Math

By Joseph Ganem, Ph.D.

During American Education Week one year, I visited my daughter's third grade math class. Five minutes into the class I realized that if I were a student, I would have a tough time passing. The teacher went over problems on a test she had just given. She read a problem out loud.

"If Johnny has $88 and spends $32 on clothes, write a number sentence that shows how much money Johnny has left." She then wrote on the board the following:  $88 - $32 = $56
Then she turned to the class and asked, "Is that a number sentence?"

At this point I realized that I would be in trouble in this class. I had no idea how to answer her question. In my line of work, this kind of expression is called an "equation." The class came through. In unison they yelled, "Yes." The teacher wrote a second equation on the board:

                -  $32
                = $56

"Is this a number sentence?"
Again I had no idea, but the class in unison yelled, "No."
"All of you know what a number sentence is. The directions on the test were to write a
number sentence. But I just looked at the papers, and 10 out of 28 of you wrote this."
She pointed to the second, the column method of subtraction on the board. "That is not a number sentence so I had to mark all of those papers wrong."
A child raised his hand.  "But I got the right answer." "I know you got the right answer, but
you didn't follow directions. The directions were to write a number sentence."

A second child raised her hand. "But I got the right answer."
"I know you can do the problem. But when we take the state exam in the spring, they won't know that you can do the problem. The graders will want to see a number sentence. It's important that you follow directions because we want to show them what smart students we have at our school."

A third child raised her hand. "But I got the right answer."
"But, I just explained. You didn't write a number sentence. If I mark that correct now, you will do that again in the spring. The people grading the state exam want to see a number sentence. They won't know that you know how to do the problem."

None of the children looked convinced. More hands went up. Exasperated, she cut off further discussion with an old parental standby.  "It's for your own good."


Joseph Ganem, Ph.D., who can be found at JosephGanem is a professor of physics at
Loyola University Maryland, and author of the award-winning book on personal finance:
The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy. It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make
financial decisions.

For more information on this award-winning book, visit TheTwoHeadedQuarter.


Originally posted The Daily Riff April 18, 2011

Related posts The Daily Riff:

  • marciepooh

    10 out of 28 getting the question wrong is a clear indication that the problem was either poorly written or the topic poorly taught. Since the students 'all' got it right in class together, I suspect it was the former not the later. (A simple rewording of the question could have made it clear that the form of the equation was important not solving the equation. (If Johnny has $88 and spends $32 on clothes, Johnny now has $56; write a number sentence that shows this.) There are other ways the teacher could have tested the concept of 'number sentences' without confusing the students. (circle the number sentences below?)

    What I really want to know is why are they introducing algebraic concepts in 3rd grade?

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