Common Core: math

Currently there are no national standards for teaching math in a public school. Each state has its own guidelines and the quality can vary dramatically from state to state. The CCSO helped design Common Core curricula standards in English, language arts and mathematics and these standards are are required if a state wants to a piece of the $4 billion in the Race to the Top competition of the Obama administration. As a result, more and more states are moving to the Common Core standard. By 2015 almost all the states will be teaching according to these standards.

The mission statement from the Common Core website says, in part, that the standards "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.".

On one level, the idea of common core standards is a great idea. The Common Core website indicates that the standards:

  • Are aligned with college and work expectations;
  • Are clear, understandable and consistent;
  • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • Are evidence-based.

Having a common set of standards makes it easier for publishers of textbooks to create books acceptable to all states. Moreover, a common set of standards should make state curricula more uniform, which is good for those families with children that move from one state to another.

All this is background for a very interesting article I saw on Common Core math standards. Ze’ev Wurman and W. Stephen Wilson provide an excellent critique:

  • Common Core is vastly superior....to the standards in more than 30 states.
  • "Common Core standards are not on par with those of the highest-performing nations."
  • examples of how common core standards "..still tend to be wordy and hard to read."
  • "it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core...are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong."
  • "...the main authors of the Common Core mathematics standards had minimal prior experience with writing standards...How, otherwise, can one explain their selecting an experimental approach to geometry, teaching it on the basis of rigid motions, that has not been successfully tried anywhere in the world? Simple prudence and an ounce of experience would tell them either to stick to what is known to work or to recommend a trial phase before foisting it sight-unseen on a nation of 300 million."
  • "What should we make, then, of a recent study purporting to “validate” that Common Core standards indeed reflect college readiness? The study, led by David Conley, was published more than a year after Common Core standards were already certified as college-ready by…David Conley as a member of the Common Core Validation Committee. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, he doth attest too much."
  • "...their promise of college readiness rings hollow. Its college-readiness standards are below the admission requirement of most four-year state colleges."
  • "In other countries, if you say “learn to multiply whole numbers,” no one questions how this should be done; students should learn and understand the standard algorithm. In the U.S., even if you say “learn to multiply whole numbers with the standard algorithm,” some people will declare wiggle room and try to avoid the standard algorithm." (Observation: if teachers were hired on the basis of having a good math background there wouldn't be people declaring wiggle room and trying to avoid the standard algorithm.)
  • "No state has any reason left to aspire for first-rate standards, as all states will be judged by the same mediocre national benchmark enforced by the federal government. Moreover, there are organizations that have reasons to work for lower and less-demanding standards, specifically teachers unions and professional teacher organizations. While they may not admit it, they have a vested interest in lowering the accountability bar for their members."

That last point, which actually contains several points, seemed particularly on the mark to me. From what I've seen, public schools focus on the lowest level to meet because that's the standard by which school administrators are judged. It also leads to the minimum number of problems with parents and students; more failing students from tougher standards means more headaches from parents. Likewise, the difficulty in getting rid of bad teachers and the fact that many decisions are made on the basis of seniority make it clear that the best interests of the children take a back seat to other issues.

There are a lot of merits to the common core idea but it seems that, if everything goes well and according to plan, the proficiency in mathematics still won't be very high on an international level. A good start, I guess, but not much more than that.

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