Friday, November 27, 2015

The Common Core Debate, Black Friday Edition

I said that I'd post two blog entries during the Thanksgiving vacation. The first was yesterday, on Thanksgiving, and the second is today, the day after Thanksgiving -- also known as Black Friday.

Just as with Thanksgiving yesterday, today I discuss Black Friday's significance on the calendar. I've seen many theories describing the origin of the name "Black Friday." The prevailing theory is that the name dates back to the 1960's, when customers complained about the amount of traffic at the malls.

It's not too difficult to see how Black Friday developed into a shopping day. With Thanksgiving always on a Thursday, workers began taking Friday off in addition to the scheduled off days on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. And since Thanksgiving has long marked the start of the countdown to Christmas, it was often treated at the first shopping day of the holiday season. Closely related to Black Friday are Small Business Saturday, intended for non-chain retailers, and Cyber Monday, intended for online retailers. Notice that if Thanksgiving falls on its latest possible date (the 28th) then Small Business Saturday falls on the last day of November -- therefore "the Saturday after Thanksgiving" and "the last Saturday in November" are equivalent.

But Black Friday is often not the biggest sales day for retailers. The problem is that customers take up parking spaces at the malls, but when they enter the stores they are only window shopping rather than opening their wallets and purses to make purchases. Customers often want to wait until the latest possible day to make their Christmas purchases. Since Saturdays are the days when people went to neither work nor church, this means that the biggest sales day is often the last Saturday before Christmas -- often known as Super Saturday.

Notice that Super Saturday actually has a significance on the academic calendar. Since the last day of school before winter break in most districts is a Friday, the first full day of vacation when students don't have to go to school is Super Saturday.

Just as we've seen with Advent, Super Saturday is tricky to define when Christmas is on Sunday. The last Saturday before the holiday would be Christmas Eve, when stores close as early as 5 or 6 PM. On the other hand, a week earlier, stores may be open all the way to midnight -- and so it's more likely for stores to make more money when they are open six or seven extra hours. And so it's uncertain whether Super Saturday should be defined as the 17th or the 24th in such years.

About a decade ago, Black Friday overtook Super Saturday in sales when retailers started offering deep discounts on Black Friday. But then these Black Friday sales started creeping into Thanksgiving itself -- a phenomenon often known as Gray Thursday. (Don't forget that last year, I bought my computer on Gray Thursday.) With the early holiday sales being divided between Gray Thursday and Black Friday, it means that Super Saturday has regain its status as the biggest sales day.

It appears that the ten biggest shopping days of the year are usually (in no particular order):

-- Black Friday,
-- Four Saturdays, from Small Business Saturday to Super Saturday,
-- Four Sundays of Advent, and
-- The day after Christmas. This day is often known as Boxing Day in many countries, and it's Boxing Day, not Black Day, that's known as a day of deep discounts. Here in the U.S. the name "Boxing Day" is rare, but many stores nonetheless hold After Christmas sales that day.

Likewise Cyber Monday is often not the biggest online sales day. The equivalent of Super Saturday for online retailers is the last day that an item sent using free shipping can arrive by Christmas. This day doesn't follow a simple formula like "the third X in December." Instead it varies by retailer -- this year it's approximately Wednesday, December 16th.

It's funny how Black Friday's popularity has spread to other nations -- and of course those other countries don't observe Thanksgiving. I remember last year when I was tutoring some students born in Korea, and I asked them what they were looking forward to the most during the days off from school at the end of November. The Korean students' answer was not "Thanksgiving dinner," but "Black Friday shopping."

Let's get back to the Common Core. No, I'm not going to attempt to connect Common Core to Black Friday (although many Common Core opponents would argue that the purpose of the Core is to make money for businesses like Pearson, just as the purpose of Black Friday is to make money).

Instead, I will make a connection to science. This week marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Actually, it appears that Einstein first formulated his famous theory in 1905, but it took ten years until the predictions he made could be confirmed. Therefore 2005 was the centennial of his annus mirabilis, but 2015 is the centennial of the actual publishing.

And so it's only fitting that right around the time of the centennial celebration, the Next Generation Science Standards (i.e., Common Core for science) have been revealed:

Science, of course, is the school subject most closely allied with mathematics -- indeed, both science and math fall under the STEM umbrella. So even though this is a math blog, I want to have some discussion of the science standards.

But I begin with my own scientific studies. While I've always been a strong math student, my science grades have gone up and down throughout my academic career. In middle school, my science grades alternated between B's and C's. Despite this, I was allowed to take the Advanced General Science class as a freshman. In that class, though, I performed so well during the first quarter that the teacher was to recommend me for a higher class, Applied Biology/Chemistry, for the second quarter.

But I never stepped into the Applied Bio/Chem classroom. This is because just before the start of the second quarter, I transferred to a school in another district. My new school had a magnet program for which I might have qualified, except that students must apply to the magnet program from their middle schools in eighth grade -- and I will still in my old district as an eighth grader. So I was placed in one of the regular programs.

At this school, magnet students took traditionalist science classes like Biology and Physics, but regular students were placed into Integrated Science classes. (That's right -- just as there exist integrated math classes, science can also be integrated.) Officially, Integrated Science I, II, and III contain elements of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. In California, two years of science are required for college admission. But since each year of Integrated Science is considered equivalent to a third of a year each in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, Integrated Science I and II are insufficient for college, as they don't comprise a full year in any of the three disciplines. So two years of Integrated Science count as zero -- one must take I, II, and III in order for any of them to count.

In Science I and II, my grades hovered between A's and B's. But as I began Integrated Science III my junior year, I excelled once again. My teacher often noticed that I would finished my tests quickly and spend the rest of the time making them look neat, and then she'd grade them, and of course my answers were correct. And so she -- just as my freshman science teacher had two years earlier -- recommended me for a higher class the second quarter.

My teacher convinced the counselors to admit me to the magnet program as a junior, even though most students entered as freshmen. She had me take science in the room next door, which turned out to be a Chemistry class. But on my transcript, the class was still notated as Integrated Science III, because she knew that unless I took Science III, my first two years of science wouldn't count. Even though I could still take Chemistry as a junior and another class as a senior and still have two years of science for college, notating the class as Science III meant that all four years would count.

I did well in Chemistry, and the following year, I took AP Physics C. I believe that I earned a score of 4 on the AP exam. I went on to take some science classes in college, with mixed results. I earned an A- for my first quarter of physics, B- my second quarter, and C- my third quarter.

We might argue that since my best subject was math, I should perform much better in the physical sciences -- Chemistry and Physics -- that are heavy with calculations, and more poorly in classes like Biology where there were few calculations. In some ways, this was true, since there was much Bio in my Science I and II courses while Science III began with Chemistry. In California, seventh grade has always tended toward Life Science, which explains my mediocre grades in seventh grade science, but I fared no better in eighth grade which tended toward Physical Science. So the type of science only partially explains why I performed better in some science classes than others.

Anyway, let's take a look at the new Next Generation Standards. Notice that just like the Common Core High School Math Standards, the High School Science Standards aren't divided into courses. It's up to the states to make this division. Here's a link to my home state of California and how it is dividing the standards into courses:

After all this discussion about my Integrated Science courses in high school, notice that California is now recommending an integrated approach in middle school. Recall that 7th and 8th grade science had always been devoted to Life and Physical Science, respectively. More recently, the sixth grade science course was geared towards Earth Science -- according to the link above, this was back in 1998, by which time I had already passed sixth grade.

But now middle school science will all be integrated. Meanwhile, notice that high school science courses are left to local decision. There is another link back to the Next Generation website which shows options for both integrated and traditionalist courses, as well as the division of the standards into three and four courses (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth Science).

What is my own opinion of this adoption? I've said that one of the strongest arguments in favor of Integrated Math is that this is how most other nations arrange their math classes. So, we can ask ourselves, how do other countries arrange their science courses? I did some research and decided to look up how another country does science -- I chose Great Britain. (And yes, that's another country to which Black Friday has spread, even though Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in the country that the Pilgrims were fleeing from.)

I found out that the British definitely integrate science in middle school (which they call "Key Stage 3"), but what they do in high school ("Key Stage 4"), I found a bit confusing. Apparently, there's no such thing as taking "Biology" one year and "Chemistry" the next, but just "Science." Yet the GCSE exams -- the big tests that students take at the end of Key Stage 4 (JK Rowling got the inspiration for Harry Potter's OWL exams from the GCSE's and their predecessors) -- give separate tests for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. On the other hand, there is only one math (or as they call it, "Maths") exam -- not separate tests for algebra and geometry.

So if we really want to follow other countries, we should have Integrated Science classes yet traditionalist standardized tests. (Note: I still have yet to hear how testing under the Next Generation Science Standards will work, except that there will be testing once each in elementary, middle, and high school, as is currently done.)

Not quite related to the Next Generation Science Standards is another issue surrounding the science curriculum -- the concept of "Physics First." This is the idea that freshmen should start the science curriculum with Physics, and then sophomores take Chemistry, and then Biology for juniors, rather than the reverse order. To me, this idea has merit. Much of Physics applies to Chemistry, and likewise much of Chemistry applies to Biology. And much of math applies to Physics -- so students can see why it's so important to learn math. The same is true with a subject like Statistics -- I believe that Stats and Data Analysis are more relevant for most people than much of algebra, and so teachers can demonstrate how math can be useful by showing its applications in Physics and Statistics.

But many traditionalists oppose this rearrangement. They'd argue that much of both Physics and Statistics are dependent on higher algebra and Calculus, and so students shouldn't see either Physics or Stats until after having completed Calculus. My problem is that students may never get through Calculus if they see algebra and Calculus as useless subjects. Of course, a freshman Physics course should start with the basics -- you can still save Einstein's Theory for AP Physics as a senior.

Thus ends my second holiday post. I will resume regular posting on Monday, November 30th.

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