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Does the Common Core Make Math Education Even Worse?

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Marina RatnerMaking Math Education Even Worse, which contained quite a few misconceptions about the Common Core and specifically about the Common Core Math Standards.

Here is my attempt to shed light on what’s good and bad about the standards and their implementation.

The Common Core Math Standards were adapted from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommendations, and these were created over a period of many years by teachers. There has been general agreement among math teachers along these standards, and there were some adjustments as the standards were folded into the Common Core.

The movement for Common Core standards was originally put forth by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Secretary Duncan and President Obama then gave it their support. The movement was thus not top down, nor bottom up, but more middle (state) to top (federal) to bottom (district and school).

The standards are not set up primarily for students who are vying for admission at elite universities. The standards were set so that high school graduates are capable of doing math work that is required in Community Colleges. Currently, about 75% of high school graduates are not able to do math at this level, even if they meet state standards for math.

Most of the old state standards were detailed curriculum maps. The new standards are learning standards. There is no one prescribed method for teaching; educators are given more discretion. When a teacher, school, or district claims that they have to teach a certain way because of the standards, it’s not true; the standards do not dictate teaching methods.

Not only are the standards generally more rigorous than state standards, there is a realignment of what is taught in each grade. A rule of thumb is that about 40% of the material overlaps existing standards for a grade, 30% of the standards moves material from a higher grade to a lower one (like what was formerly taught in 7th grade might now be taught in 5th), 15% moves material from a lower grade into a higher one, and 15% is new material that was not taught before (for example, many states never taught statistics, but statistics is now part of the standards). These are not definitive; they will vary for each state and for each grade.

Another adjustment is that the standards attempt to measure thinking, not just knowledge. In the old standards, a student merely got the answer right or wrong. On the new ones, students show their thinking process so that they can get credit for knowing what to do even if they make stupid errors. Because there are multiple ways to think through a problem, teachers are directed to show students multiple approaches and not just one algorithm.

I am personally not a fan of the Common Core Math Standards, however. My biggest objections are:

  1. That the materials are so grade dependent. If a 3rd grade student is doing 7th grade work, the only thing that is measured is how well he or she is doing 3rd grade work. It’s like saying, “every two year old should be able to crawl perfectly” and ignoring that some two year olds are actually walking.
  2. The tests are high stakes. I believe that any high stakes test can be gamed. Since teachers and schools are penalized by poor performance, they will come up with ways to game the system, like having some students “absent” or “suspended” for the test, or claiming that some students are “disabled”, or teachers refusing to take low performing students into their classes so that their class tests appear higher. If we want the best teachers taking the hardest students to teach, those teachers shouldn’t then be penalized.
  3. The tests only measure what happens on 1 particular day. A student could be held back because he/she was sick on the day of the test and not performing well.

Assessment should be built into everything students do, with feedback for the teacher and student as the day and year progress. And the data from this feedback should inform administrators which students are not learning and which are so that actions can be taken during the year to remediate (both the teacher and student).

We need a multi-pronged approach to improving education. Something like:

  1. Raise awareness of the full spectrum of issues
  2. Encourage local experimenting
  3. Get great leaders in schools, they are what sets the school culture
  4. Give teachers time in schools to share, learn, plan, and develop a team approach
  5. Build feedback mechanisms into all school activities, as automatedly as possible, so students, educators, administrators, and parents know what is working
  6. Scale what is working, prune what isn’t

There really are models that are showing impressive results, where good leadership provides direction, teachers work in teams to ensure learning for all children, and students do learning activities that provide both motivation and feedback. That’s where our attention should be directed.

In fact, that’s the mission of our company, Academic Business Advisors, to find education practices that accelerate student learning, to continuously improve them, and to help them scale.