Alright, I've had enough. I've been watching and reading from the sidelines for the past year as I've watched the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) go from an issue that was very politically boring (46 states adopted the standards in 2010 and 2011 with little in the way of opposition) to an issue that seems to have simultaneously reached the mainstream news and seems to have turned into the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with education.
I read today that my home state, Ohio, is taking steps towards repealing their adoption of the CCSSM because of this newfound public opinion. State Rep. Andy Thompson (R), the author of the bill, told EdWatch blogger Andrew Ujifusa in an interview that he introduced the bill in part because of "the level of concern not just in communications to [his] office, but on Facebook around the state." Additionally, I saw this article on Lifehacker, posted today, explaining how parents can understand what the heck is going on with Common Core. It's official, we're in the middle of a full-blown public perception pandemic. And no, I'm not talking about Ebola.
I know a thing or two about the Common Core math standards and I'd like to try and set the record straight in a few regards for my friends who may not be as close to the education world...
1. CCSSM is not a Prescriptive Curriculum
The word "standards" is part of the acronym for a reason - the CCSSM are just a set of standards. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the nuanced meaning of educational jargon, standards are different than things like curriculum (how we teach) or assessments (how we assess what students have learned) in that they are things that we use as overarching objectives for students to reach at the end of a particular course. For example, the CCSSM algebra standard A.CED.1 begins with "Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems." Easy enough, right?
The standards say absolutely nothing about how to teach this concept to students, how to structure a curriculum to get students to this point or even how to assess whether students have met this standard or not. And that's the point: a standard is not supposed to do these things. Obviously, the devil is in the implementation when it comes to education and there are plenty of valid criticisms of the way that adopting CCSSM has gone in many states. But, let's be clear: It's not fair to criticize a set of academic standards for the mess that others have created while trying to align their instructional practices to them.
2. Common Core Math Standards are not Forcing Teachers to Teach in "New Age" Ways
This image was prominently featured in the Lifehacker article above:
I'll admit, I had to stare at this for a few minutes to understand what was going on in the second solution method for finding the answer to 32-12, but let's stop for a second and unpack what is going on here and recognize how this picture is being used out of context to make a point.
The nostalgically-labeled "old-fashioned way" should be a familiar procedure for us all whereby you line up two numbers on top of each other, with the bottom number being the one you wish to subtract from the top number, and build your answer by performing single-digit subtraction between the corresponding digits in both numbers (remembering to borrow when necessary, of course...). I learned to do multiple-digit subtraction this way, and I have no complaints about the use of this procedure in general.
The "new way", I'll admit, does appear "convoluted" at first glance. However, when you try and figure out the context of what might have been happening in the classroom to introduce this method, what the student might have been thinking during the work, and how this might be part of a broader, strategic effort on the part of the teacher to introduce a concept, things are a little less confusing.
I'm guessing here, but here's what I think is going on in the "new way." Students were encouraged to approach subtraction, first, by using what they already know about addition. Subtraction is actually the same fundamental operation as addition, just working in the opposite direction. Students using the "new way" were likely encouraged to count up from the lower number, incrementally, stopping at checkpoint numbers like 15 and 20 on their way counting up from 12 to 32. At the end, the boxed column of numbers contains a count of all of the times that students added something along the way to get from 12 to 32. This is the same as answering what 32-12 is and we should value this for it's conceptual focus. This method is an example of an anchor representation that, if understood fully, will help students immensely as they progress through mathematics and build on their concept of subtraction. I doubt this procedure was taught as an end-goal (although I could be wrong) and I don't think it should be. However, for a teacher who feels comfortable creating this anchor representation for his students and who can scaffold and guide students through this as one step in their learning process, this should absolutely be allowed and viewed for what it is: one way of gaining insight toward the concept behind subtraction. No one is saying that students should continue to write out their work in this way to do simple subtraction long term. We simply don't know enough about the context of this work to judge it as an educational tool. It's pictures like these that are being thrown around, out of pedagogical context, skewing public perception of what CCSSM is and what it means for students.
Of course, this entire analysis is somewhat moot, since again, the CCSSM do not perscribe any particular way to teach students how to learn concepts and procedures. It is the job of the classroom and district professionals to make those decisions. It does however attempt to shift the focus of education away from simply making sure that students can consistently replicate procedures. The CCSSM push teachers and students to make sure that concepts are mastered on the way to procedural fluency. As members of the voting public, we should be supporting our schools fully to do this. I've always felt that teachers are and should be viewed as professionals. If you let teachers have the autonomy, the training, and the impetus to make and implement decisions, great things can happen. Unfortunately, this is not the case currently across many states, but I'll save my thoughts there for another time.
3. The Standards are Good!
I can't emphasize this enough. My personal opinion about the standards (I've spent the most time with the algebra and geometry standards) is that they are very strong. The standards are clear, concise, and detailed. They are independent of specific procedures for solving problems, allowing teachers and students to learn in different ways. They emphasize that students should be able to demonstrate understanding of mathematical concepts and not just find correct answers to a specific subset of procedural problems. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a math educator who had a legitimate bone to pick with the overall quality of the standards. Sure, there are areas that cause disagreement within the community and the "weighting" that is implicitly given to certain topics has caused some unease among educators used to teaching towards other standards, but none of those issues are reason to criticize the quality of the standards overall. They are certainly not a reason to reject the standards entirely. It makes me sad to see the state of the political scene surrounding these standards right now.
Winning the Math Wars by Martin Abbott, et al., gives a great summary of the history of mathematics standards, policy, and curriculum over the past 50 years. When it comes to the CCSSM, the fact is that they are largely based on the work of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) which has long been advocating for better, more complete, standards in mathematics. They published a set of standards in 2000 which looks very similar to what we have now in the CCSSM. The work of NCTM has increasingly become accepted throughout the mathematics education community as a reputable, a-political, and research-based professional contribution to the profession. Many articles like to emphasize the fact that the committee that drafted the CCSSM only had one K-12 educator among its members. Most of the other members were either college professors, curriculum specialists for testing companies, or content experts in the field. I personally have no problem with this. They are professionals who work explicitly on doing things like this. I love thinking about writing standards, and I would love to contribute to the work that others are doing, but my primary job is to teach my students. The job of the educational research community is to decide things like this. Oh, and have I mentioned yet that the standards are good?! The notion that the CCSSM are somehow disconnected from the accepted body of professional knowledge in math education is not only misleading, but dangerous.
Let's Stop Scapegoating CCSSM
My main point in all of this is that CCSSM is unfairly taking the brunt of the public disconcent with education, and I'm not sure why. I wish that we could keep things in perspective and realize that the realization of national standards is something that we really could benefit from and has been called for by people on all sides of the education debate many times in the past. So, please, let's remember that the standards themselves are good. The rest, I'll concede... it's messy. Instead of abandoning everything, why don't we work hard to support those making the hard decisions on the ground to help our students grow and learn. Ohio, I know you can do better.