A critique of Common Core math standards

(freepik.com)
(freepik.com)

I recently posted a piece on the future of high school math education and the Common Core State Standards on math, which was the work of a coalition of mathematicians, statisticians, teachers and curriculum developers, that elicited a lot of interest. The following response takes a critical look at that piece and the Common Core math standards. It was written by Michael Goldenberg, who holds a master’s degree in mathematics education from the University of Michigan, as well as master’s degrees in English and psychological foundations of education from the University of Florida. He writes the “Rational Mathematics Education” blog and was a co-founder of the group Mathematically Sane. He coaches high school mathematics teachers in Detroit. You can read the piece that prompted his reaction here.

 

By Michael Goldenberg

On Dec. 6, an essay from a group of noteworthy mathematics education professionals entitled, “The future of high school math education,” appeared on this blog. I responded here with a comment, a version of which appears below with additional remarks. I sent it to all the signatories in hopes of promoting a much-needed national dialogue that should have occurred long before the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics [CCSSM] were drafted, internally critiqued, and approved (or not). As of Dec. 9, I had received a reply from only one of the authors, and await permission to share that response publicly. Perhaps we can have on this blog a conversation that is less burdened with some of the more imaginative hypotheses about the Common Core as a whole and the CCSSM in particular (e.g., that Bill Ayers played an authorship or any other role in their creation).

It is difficult enough to have meaningful conversations about mathematics teaching and learning in this country without the onus of highly politicized and unfounded conspiracy theories that directly or indirectly owe much to the work of Charlotte Iserbyt and Beverly Eakma. There has been, after all, a national “math war” going on since at least the early-to-mid 1990s.

And unfortunately, the fallout from that war has been to create an enormous amount of nonsense, rhetoric, and malicious dishonesty from many entrenched traditionalists – people whose minds are so closed that they have and never will grant a single positive aspect of any approach to mathematics teaching and learning at the K-14 level (that is, up to the completion of the usual undergraduate non-math-major calculus sequence), that is in any way pitched at those who are NOT planning to become professional mathematicians, physicists, engineers, computer scientists, or other members of the so-called STEM careers.

In other words, these people want EVERY student to have to start from day one in kindergarten as if the goal of ALL math teaching was to get students to at least the master’s level in mathematics. Those who aren’t ready or interested at 5 years old, and those who may never wish to pursue that stratum of mathematics, simply don’t matter. Some of these people would, given the opportunity, return K-12 education to the heavily tracked system that best serves the interests of a small elite. There is ample evidence that this approach significantly reduces the mathematical achievement of the vast majority of our youngsters, ensuring that most of them will be terrified by and turned off to mathematics, while at the same time denying them any opportunity in school to encounter a broad enough sampling of the subject to have any chance of finding something that appeals to them and/or that they are successful with.

I believe that I understand why the signatories (most of whom I know personally to some degree and nearly all of whom I know by reputation as progressive mathematics educators) felt compelled to write in defense of what they take to be the healthy core precepts inherent in CCSSM. As will be evident in what follows, I think they are correct in their championing of the Practice Standards, but mistaken in pinning their hopes for the success of the battle on throwing their support to the overall CCSSI, an initiative that, I argue below, is fatally sick at its heart.

Let’s play “pretend” for a moment. We’ll pretend that: 1) the methods by which CCSSM evolved and were foisted upon our public schools don’t matter; 2) neither do the for-profit forces promoting and funding its development or their mercenary motives; 3) the myriad complaints about developmental inappropriateness are unreasonable or irrelevant (remember – we’re playing “pretend”); 4) the failure to carve out clear alternative paths by omitting key areas of mathematics (such as discrete math) entirely from the content standards is not highly questionable; 5) that a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to curriculum is a fantastic idea; and 6) that the punitive use of high-stakes, summative tests employed in a manner that will keep all useful formative information away from students, teachers, parents, and other key stakeholders is not a highly destructive policy.

Despite all that creative use of imagination, as well as the best intentions of the signatories of the essay and the people who served on the various committees affiliated with the Common Core Math standards, I claim that CCSSM will fail, and fail miserably. And no one should understand the reasons better than these signatories, having been intimately involved with the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics’s (NCTM) attempts to get its 1989-2000 standards widely accepted and implemented.

That is because the same things that undermined NCTM’s reform efforts remain unaddressed by CCSSM and its supporters: the need for a LONG-TERM effort that:

1) engages support and input IN ADVANCE on a mass basis by reaching out to stakeholders in a meaningful (rather than token) way;

2) that takes advantage of the known history of reform efforts in math education to avoid perceived and/or actual past failure (see “The” New Math, and The Math Wars c. 1989 – present);

3) that creates a cadre of teachers who are on-board with and up to the task of teaching in keeping with the Practice Standards;

4) that openly and pointedly acknowledges the impossibility and undesirability of rolling out 13 years of “new” math education in one year, and instead calls for introducing CCSSM a year/grade at a time. In keeping with a long-range approach rather than the quick fix the signatories properly decry but in fact are inherently supporting in suggesting that we “stay the course,” mechanisms for collecting and making use of feedback from teachers, a la the approach taken in Japan by its Ministry of Education, are set up and employed from the outset. The result of this is that that by the time Year 2 begins, the second year of teaching CCSSM in the lowest grades (and we might seriously want to rethink the notion that we need “rigorous” academic standards in Kindergarten, replete with high-stakes tests looming) has been informed by the experiences of the first year, and materials have been tweaked accordingly;

5) vigilant efforts to continue to build support for the Practice Standards among parents, teachers, and other stakeholders must be a year-long focus EVERY year. This may mean finding ways to phase out teachers who clearly are unable and/or unwilling to commit to the core ideas in the Practice Standards;

6) every effort must be made to change the focus of assessment from punitive, summative, standardized instruments that are not part of the learning cycle, to true formative (not “interim”) performance tasks that give all useful data to teachers, parents, and students first and foremost;

7) the focus on the myth that education is a race or competition must be soundly rejected;

NCTM, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and other national and state professional organizations need to stand up for a vision of educational improvement that acknowledges economic and social reality, that rejects the business-as-usual, self-serving nonsense that the vulture capitalists and billionaires have been using to destroy public schools and replace them with for-profit charters and vouchers.

While I am aware that some of the above issues are touched upon in the original essay to which I am responding, too many of these points are not addressed adequately or at all. Once we stop playing “pretend,”  educators must acknowledge that CCSSM is deeply flawed and irredeemably tainted by the overall Common Core Initiative, Race to the Top, the high-stakes testing monster, and the ugly fingerprints of corporate educational deform.

We risk setting progressive reform mathematics education back to the pre-1989 era. And in the long run, we will not get see any of the key principles in the CCSSM Practice Standards implemented meaningfully.

Twenty years from now, the best we can hope for is that we’ll still be having these same arguments. At worst, all debate will be effectively shut down. Most of the rest of the industrialized world will have adopted the child-friendly, humanistic ideas that NCTM developed, to the great advantage of their students, while American students will be forced to subsist on curricula and pedagogy that would be better suited to East Germany, North Korea, Stalinist Russia, and other Cold War totalitarian regimes. The irony is vast, and would be funny if the victims weren’t children.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 10, 2013