There’s a scene from The Matrix which I absolutely love as a metaphor for the choices we make and the ignorance we can choose to turn on or off as it suits us. Watch the scene or read the dialogue below.

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) explains to Neo (Keanu Reeves) that the Matrix is an illusory world created to prevent humans from discovering that they are slaves to an external influence. Holding out a capsule on each of his palms, he describes the choice facing Neo:

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”


Basically Neo is presented with a choice where he can swallow the blue pill and live a comfortable life where he can believe whatever he wants. Or, he can swallow the red pill, trade away that blissful ignorance, and gain a deeper understanding of reality. Honestly, it’s not an easy choice.

For a less serious and very funny example of what this choice between blissful ignorance and harsh reality looks like, listen to about a minute of this short clip from my favorite comic, Jim Gaffigan, where he talks about our denial when we stay in hotel rooms. What I’ve started to wonder is whether this same choice between blissful ignorance and harsh reality might apply to education.


Application to Education
Based on my experiences and interactions as an educator and consultant over the last 15 years, I believe that less than 15% of American math teachers have actually read and understood their grade level math standards. This might seem ludicrously low, but what I’ve found is that most people either use their textbooks in lieu of their standards or use summaries of the standards that have been written by someone else.

Believe me, I’ve done the same thing myself. In fact, as a 7th grade math teacher, for four years I taught a standard that was actually an 8th grade standard because it was in my textbook and I didn’t ever think to look and see whether it was actually a part of my standards. I just assumed that if it was in my textbook, it must be a part of my standards. Boy was I angry at myself when I discovered that. It was such a pain to teach that standard and it had taken away time from other topics I could have spent more time on.

This reality is simultaneously understandable (because many states’ standards are so challenging to read) and really scary because it means that there’s a reasonable chance that teachers are not teaching what they should be teaching.

For example, there are subtle differences between standards at various grade levels. What’s the difference between dividing fractions in 5th grade versus dividing fractions in 6th grade? What about ratios and proportions in 6th versus 7th? What about the difference between solving systems of equations in 8th grade versus Algebra 1? These differences can be challenging to figure out even when you have both standards side by side. If you don’t have them and are comparing problems listed in textbooks from two grade levels, it can be darn near impossible.


When I look back at my experiences as a new teacher, I cleaaaarly chose to take the blue pill. What can I say? It was a combination of being naïve and lazy. I chose blissful ignorance. Nowadays I choose to take the red pill. Whenever possible, I read the standard and learn more details. It can be a royal pain to make sense of it all, but I’ve realized that it’s critical to focusing on the right things.

It’s rarely an easy choice when deciding on whether to swallow the red or blue pill. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, but it’s important to realize when we are making that choice as it has consequences.

What do you think? What am I wrong about and where am I misguided? Where else do you see people choosing which pill to swallow in education?


  1. This is definitely RIGHT ON TIME. Our state is currently dealing with issues with standards. Politicians who have never even read the standards are working to remove the Common Core standards from our state. The problem is that we don’t actually use Common Core, but rather a set of standards/written by teachers/that model the Common Core Standards. Their are so many misconceptions in the public eye about what the standards actually say. They are confusing strategies with standards. They rely on memes to define what the standards say or tell teachers to do. As I see all these misconceptions – my question is always this, “Have you actually READ the standards?” to which I usually get no reply.

        • I’ve always read and studied my students’ learning goals, because we had no textbook (in English, with the Mexican program). Since 2006, we have had a spiral program that said in which order should the standards be thought. But teachers and didn’t read or didn’t understand the reasons. Now, as we are “very democratic” we have to change smart stuff by the public opinion. So, do you have to teach your standards when you know they are not right?

    • I agree! I actually made a statement at a hearing with our state legislators concerning the standards and there were so many people that were angry about them. As soon as I started to ask them if they could name the parts of the standards they did not agree with – they had to admit they had never even bothered to LOOK at them! YIKES!

    • I’d make the case that “Have you actually READ the standards?” is not exactly the question to be asking either. There is so much to unpack in mathematics that you can “read” all the standards yet still not know the story of mathematics. It’s hard that these decisions are not based more heavily on educator opinion.

      • I agree with it’s more than just reading them, but the fact is that our politicians have not even looked at them to see that they are truly standards. They think that it is a set of steps in which teachers purposely find the longest route possible to make students do this “new math”. Usually they can’t go past the question because they are relying on memes and social media to tell them what Common Core is.
        As far as teachers I whole heartedly agree that merely reading them is a task. Our standards are so wordy and have so many layers (i.e. one standard may have the standard, then a-f that fall under these standards). I think another question is are school districts doing anything to support teachers and give them opportunities to unpack the standards at any point. Also, are we offering PD to discuss the why it’s what’s best for our students and see what it looks like in an actual classroom setting. I know the first time I read our College and Career Ready Standards (AL’s rendition of Common Core), I had to take a step at a time to decipher what that standard really meant.

  2. The state of Georgia has standards and Grade Level Overviews and Unit by Unit documents. Teachers should be required to read these documents. In my opinion, states and districts blamed the textbooks because they didn’t want to buy textbooks. I think you should steer teachers toward documents that help to alleviate the confusion. Principles to Action comes to mind. What other documents are helpful Mr. Kaplinsky?

    • There’s a lot here to unpack, Daniel. Personally, for this blog post I am focused more on what we teach rather than how we teach. So, something like progression documents, Graham Fletcher’s progression videos (, and standard upacking documents would be helpful to me.

  3. I am firmly in the red pill camp. Consequently my head wants to explode every night with all the things I see other teachers doing and all the great ideas and discourse I see like in your daily emails about how best to approach the real curriculum.
    The problem is two-fold for me.
    1. I am by nature a disorganized fool with some form of Adult A.D.H.D, not unlike the dog in the movie “UP” so it’s difficult to organize all of these ideas into a coherent plan that I can implement either now or next year.

    2. PLC! The Professional Learning Community in my department that pairs up members of our disfunctional math family, most of whom fit into the 85% you mention above.

    So frustrating.

    • Sorry Phil. It really is much easier to say than to do. Honestly, sometimes it feels like it would have been easier to take the blue pill because the better path (with the red pill) requires so much work.

  4. I am curious what other teachers think about the common core math standards for the high school level. They are not necessarily split by class or by grade level. How do I decide which standards to teach for each specific math class so that students coming to or leaving my school part way through high school are not repeating standards and are covering all of the standards they need?

    • Theoretically, each state should define how the standards are distributed across the grade levels. That being said, different states had different takes on what that means.

  5. Our district has worked on vertical articulation for grades 7-12 over the past few years. It has been eye opening for us to see the subtle differences between grade levels. We were also able to dig deeper into the standards and see how the grade levels supported each other. This is a work in progress as we continue to work together to better understand our standards.

    • This is important work. Conversations within and between grade levels are important. The more we understand how standards connect to one another, the better prepared we are to help students do the same.

  6. I am really struggling with this. I have a basic understanding of my standards and I’m not opposed to learning more. However, I ALSO know that my students come in vastly underprepared. Integers, for example, are nowhere near my Algebra 1 standards (at least not at their most basic level) and neither is order of operations. Knowing exactly what I should be teaching isn’t going to be that helpful if my students lack the basic skills to learn it. My team ends up spending time determining which basic skills we can skip/condense/etc and which are important enough that we need to take time on them–and from there, which Algebra 1 standards we should eliminate.

    If I were in an environment where everyone followed the standards, this would absolutely be worthwhile. But I’m not. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • So it’s not my intention to say that we shouldn’t attempt to fill the gaps in students’ understandings. What I am saying is that when I did not even know what my content standards were, I didn’t really know what target I was aiming for.

      When I look back at my early years of teaching, I spent a LOT of time on intervention because I thought, “How can they do topics D, E, and F if they can’t do A, B, and C?” What I realize now with more perspective, was that there were many who could do D, E, and F and were ready for it, but I never gave them the chance because I thought they HAD to master A, B, and C and I also didn’t realize the C wasn’t even in my content standards!

      So, I think that regardless of WHAT you teach, knowing your standards is still critical.

  7. I’m going to push back some on this statement: “It was a combination of being naïve and lazy.” Teachers are constantly short time, especially new teachers that are still finding their bearing and adjusting to the constant pressures from students, parents and administrators that many times want conflicting things. So, to unpack the standards and follow the flow from one grade to the next means in terms of a skill or understanding is the easiest thing to put off when most of us already work beyond our contract hours every week. I’m not saying it’s an impossible ask and it’s definitely a goal of mine, but most of the time, I don’t have the time to dive deeply on every single standard, yet. Until we value veteran teachers more to stop the high turnover rate, this knowledge will keep needing to be relearned from scratch by every new teacher, many of whom may just burn out, especially those who put i the extra effort.

    • I appreciate your push back. It wasn’t my intention to say that teachers in general are naive and lazy. I was speaking about myself… but maybe I was still too harsh. When I think back, I was working from 6 am to 6 pm in my first years. So I guess I was doing quite a lot.

  8. In Texas we have our own standards, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Some of the TEKS are aligned to Common Core standards but some aren’t. As an elementary instructional coach I rely heavily on our Supporting Information and Unpacking Documents when planning with my teachers and helping them find supplemental resources. There are so many amazing resources available online, but some are not aligned to our TEKS. It takes a lot of time to check everything, but I think it’s worth it. Luckily I work in a district that provides our curriculum and resources from curriculum coordinators that include the TEKS and the Supporting Information in the units, but it’s easy to look past all of those and get right to the lessons during planning time! It’s important to dig deep into the standards because everything about how we SHOULD teach STUDENTS to make connections, develop strong number sense, and become problem solvers has changed drastically since we were taught math (primarily procedures and steps). It’s sometimes difficult to break the cycle of comments like “That’s how I learned it, and I turned out just fine.” or reverting to short cuts and tricks because it’s quicker and “easier that way”! It really does take longer in the beginning to focus on where the students are mathematically coming from and where they are mathematically going vertically, but once we understand that lineage, students will develop those necessary foundations to continue growing mathematically. We don’t always get to see that growth in the single year we have them, and that stresses teachers out because of the state assessments! It’s frustrating to witness in some classrooms because those teachers have been unfairly wired to think about students’ success on their grade level state assessment rather than focusing on student thinking and doing math that makes sense to them that will benefit them year to year!

    • Thanks for unpacking this, Stef. I loved how Common Core held the promise of making teachers’ lives easier by unifying us around one set of standards. Unfortunately, politics got in the way.

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