This is making its internet rounds again:

These days, I see it in math teacher forums clucking about our colleagues. There is often a microaggressive wink-wink against elementary school teachers or misogynistic pronoun use where the brilliant student is “he” and the teacher is “she”.

First, as a real thing that a real teacher wrote in response to a real student, this thing reeks of fabrication. If some now-teen-or-older steps forward to prove that they personally know the poor child that received this, I’ll change my position. Until then, I’ll stand by: This was made up.

As far as I can tell, this first appeared in 2016 on Reddit, without context, under the headline “The American Education System”. No “I had a friend whose child…” or “I found this on a teacher forum…”. Just the title and the picture.

Is it an actual worksheet? That’s certainly possible. I can’t find it, but if anyone reading this knows the source (sans “student” scribble and “teacher” rebuttal, natch), please do let me know.

For now, though, I can’t find the worksheet without the text, even when I dial Google to search only before 3/1/2016. The only thing about Marty and pizza comes from a homework help site where the question is, “Marty ate 1/4 of a pizza. Rob ate 1/5 of a pizza. How could Rob have eaten more pizza than Marty?”

There are three very interesting differences here: (1) The fractions are unit fractions, making the question more difficult; (2) The language is very close, but not identical; (3) Luis is Rob.

It’s not unusual for students (or parents) to post workbook questions on the internet to get answers. But why change the numbers? Why not change the text completely instead, including getting rid of Marty, and keep the numbers the same? And why doesn’t the Marty/Luis worksheet appear anywhere on the internet until somebody decides to mock a teacher?

I’ll talk about (3) below.

I’ll also question the source a bit: The user who posted this was, at roughly the same time, casting about for law school ideas, insulting undocumented immigrants, and scolding liberals (in 2016) for blaming the Trump win on Russia.

And I fully admit that, when I first saw this a few years ago, I too went and banged a whiteboard and clutched my pearls and raged, raged against the dying of the education system.

I also think it’s very possible that xtreme1461 happened on the 2012 version of the question and changed “Rob” to “Luis” to make a swipe at those aforementioned undocumented immigrants. The ones that Trump had told them all about.

Do I know that for a fact? No, it could just be a coincidence. There could definitely be two completely unrelated questions about Marty eating part of a pizza that’s a different size than a friend’s. *(Is my sarcasm too obvious? I’ll try to tone it down.)*

Even without that connection, though, there’s definitely a narrative here about people with white-sounding names getting larger pizzas than people with Hispanic-sounding names that is consistent with xtreme1461’s general worldview.

So, for the rest of this article, I will assume that this is a malicious fabrication, and talk about why it’s both viral and persistent.

Anyway, there’s this question. The intent of the question authors is pretty clear: They’re trying to reinforce that pizzas can be different sizes, so when we’re talking about a ratio of a whole, we need to keep in mind that the relevant wholes can be different sizes.

By and large, students ** hate** story problems. This is a major concern to the mathematics educator because, for most students, the answer to “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” is “To solve real world applications.”

Story problems are supposed to be a bridge between the obscure dancing symbols on the page and reality. When students dig in and express their disgust, they’re actively resisting crossing that bridge.

In most cases, it’s no wonder: It’s a wooden rope bridge over a treacherous ravine.

The general assumption about pizzas in story problems (and pizzas in story problems on fractions are notoriously common) is that they’re the same size. That doesn’t match what students generally know about the world, and a disconnect between a story problem and what students know about the world is one major weakness of story problems.

The Marty/Luis problem hits that head on: The most “reasonable” answer to the question is the one provided by the “child”: Marty’s pizza is larger. (Another possible answer: Marty also ate some of someone else’s; the problem just says how much each of them ate of their own pizza.)

A lot of people consider the question, as phrased, to be a trick question. That’s because it openly violates an unspoken rule about story problem assumptions: Assume that “same” objects are congruent, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Unless the rest of the text reinforces the idea that pizzas can be different sizes (something, again, students already know about the real world), I would indeed consider this a trick question and would hope it would be marked as such. The word “Challenge!” is often used to remind students to be more mindful.

At the same time, though, it’s an excellent question because it reminds students to keep in mind that fractions are a portion of a whole, and only have numeric value when the size of the whole is considered. Half a teaspoon is clearly far less than a quarter of a gallon, for instance.

So… the question itself ticks off a box of student loathing of story problems: Detachment from the real world. It ticks off another one: Unmarked trick questions.

The “child”‘s scrawl is the cry of the Everyman, given voice in the innocent: The answer is correct. It is reasonable. We have succeeded in defeating the Story Problem Gotcha Monster! It is dead and floating in a pool of its own blood! HUZZAH!

Damn you Common Core! Damn you Math Anxiety! Damn you Story Problems That Make No Sense!

So… that answer gives visceral joy to everyone who has ever been shamed in math class. Which means, as far as I can tell after a decade as an educator, everyone. Even me. Which is why, when I first saw it, I took it at face value, clutched my pearls, and raged with everyone else.

And then, along comes the “teacher.” The voice of authority, who has dogmatically ignored the clear intent of the problem and approached the problem as most students who have given up trying to understand story problems would approach it: Mash the numbers together and hope for the best.

Robert Kaplinsky observed this phenomenon when he asked some middle schoolers about the age of a shepherd. When faced with a question students can’t answer, most of them will try to answer it anyway. Kaplinsky writes, “Many of the students knew I was crazy for asking them this question, yet they felt like they couldn’t question the questioner and were obligated to answer me.”

The “teacher” is the voice of compliance. If this were a short story, my literature teachers would be reveling in the symbolism of the tension between the “child”, representing free will and a measured view of reality, and the “teacher”, representing dogmatic compliance to unseen authoritarianism.

They don’t think: They mash. And they mock anyone who does think.

If this is truly a constructed hoax, it is absolute genius. It checks off so many boxes about why people hate math class. About how math anxiety makes so many of us feel. It is revenge in a tiny morsel.

A presumably unintended benefit is that it gives us in our thrones in high school, feeling insecure about our own worth as math educators, the opportunity to sneer at an unnamed elementary teacher, and by implication all elementary teachers: We may not be perfect, we may not be College Professor material, but at least we’re not actively torturing students with our dogmatism like this one is.

If you’re an educator at my level, I encourage to reflect on how much that attitude has infiltrated your mind. I’ve reflected on it myself. I wasn’t happy with what I saw, and I’ve been working, still working, on overcoming it.

That’s not to say there is not a major problem with math competency among elementary educators: There is. Some educators are wonderfully equipped to teach the mathematics they’re expected to teach, and some … not so much.

That problem is not addressed, though, by elevating up examples like these (and it’s not alone, just a sterling example of the barb) and treating them as real, solid, absolute evidence.

Indeed, the original title of the piece–“The American education system”–suggests that this was originally meant as Swiftian satire, a modest proposal for addressing the problems. This was not a punch at a specific teacher, this was a punch at an entire system.

Its virality and persistence represents the cries of the masses, complaining about the problems of that system.

We as educators know full well the problems of that system.

So, instead of continuing to share this item, clucking over it with our “at least we’re not ** them**” self-deprecating arrogance, let’s do something substantive about those problems.

**Addendum:** After I wrote this, I noticed that a teacher pointed out the similarity to a question in Eureka Math’s fourth grade end of module 6 assessment: “Brian and Sonya each have a container. They mark their containers to show tenths. Brian and Sonya both fill their containers with 0.7 units of juice. However, Brian has more juice in his container. Explain how this is possible.” The sample answer clearly shows the intent: