Published July 30, 2013
Controversy is swirling about the new Common Core national standards, which are designed to transform K-12 education in English language arts and math.
Especially in the area of math, Common Core proponents insist that it is the only way to address the problem of lagging achievement by American students. But the Common Core math standards fall far short of what students need for more advanced work.
In some ways Common Core amounts to a massive experiment with our children – an experiment we think the states would be wise to reconsider.
Most educators would agree that mathematical education in the U.S. is in crisis, and that the reason is the way math is currently taught. But Common Core does nothing to address this problem. And in fact, in many areas the national standards are fully as poor as the standards of the weakest states.
One of Common Core’s most glaring deficiencies is its handling of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers.
Remember “fuzzy math”? It’s back with a vengeance under Common Core.
The classic method of, for example, adding two-digit numbers is to add the digits in the “ones” column, carry the remainder to the “tens” column, and then add the “tens” digits. This “standard algorithm” works first time, every time.
But instead of teaching this method, which enables students to solve problems quickly and routinely, Common Core creates a two-step process.
The first is to let students choose from several alternative algorithms (number lines, estimating, etc.) for doing one-digit additions, subtractions, and multiplications.
The second is probably to extend these student constructions to more complex calculations. (We say “probably” because the standards are not at all clear on this point.)
There is no point where the student-constructed algorithms are explicitly replaced by the very efficient standard methods for doing one-digit operations.
Why does Common Core adopt this convoluted method of teaching math? The stated reason is that learning the standard algorithm doesn’t give students a “deeper conceptual understanding” of what they’re doing. But the use of student-constructed algorithms is at odds with the practices of high-achieving countries and is not supported by research. Common Core is using our children for a huge and risky experiment.
There are also severe problems with the way Common Core handles percents, ratios, rates, and proportions – the critical topics that are essential if students are to learn more advanced topics such as trigonometry, statistics, and even calculus.
As well, the way Common Core presents geometry is not research-based -- and the only country that tried this approach on a large scale rapidly abandoned it.
In addition to these deficiencies, Common Core only includes most (but not all) of the standard algebra I expectations, together with only some parts of standard geometry and algebra II courses. There is no content beyond this.
Hidden in Common Core is the real objective – presenting the minimal amount of material that high-school graduates need to be able to enter the work force in an entry-level job, or to enroll in a community college with a reasonable expectation of avoiding a remedial math course.
There is no preparation for anything more, such as entering a university (not a community college) with a reasonable expectation of being able to skip the entry-level courses.
(Virtually no university student who has to take an entry-level math course ever gets a degree in a technical area such as the hard sciences, engineering, economics, statistics, or mathematics.)
Common Core thus amounts to a disservice to our students. It puts them at least two years behind their peers in high-performing countries, and leaves them ill-prepared for authentic college course work.
Those who doubt that this low-level workforce-development is the goal of Common Core should ponder the admission of Jason Zimba, one of the chief drafters of the math standards.
In a public meeting of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 2010, Dr. Zimba testified that Common Core is designed to prepare students only for a non-selective community college, not a university.
In the waves of Common Core advocacy, from Republicans as well as Democrats, this was indeed an unusual moment of candor.
So before states forge ahead with a set of standards created, owned, copyrighted, and controlled by anonymous interests outside the state, they should be aware that those interests seem to be motivated by the desire for minimal workforce-development rather than genuine math education.
Is the Common Core experiment the best we can do?
Parents and teachers should refuse to settle for this Common Core mediocrity, and demand truly world-class standards for the good of our students and our country.