Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Common Core Math Problems

In a feeble and rash attempt to defend Common Core math standards, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apparently insulted millions of middle class suburban moms by saying opposition to the Common Core is simply a result of "“white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” That's certainly not the diplomatic approach I would suggest, especially when critics are raising legitimate concerns about the Common Core drafting and implementation. Arne Duncan seems to be expressing an ignorance of just what the standards say and why they may present problems.

On the other hand, Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss offers an extensive and valid criticism for "Why Young Kids Are Struggling with Common Core Math." And her criticisms are worth considering. The most serious issue is, of course, the potential ignorance that the standards reveal about the learning stages and styles of young children. While the Common Core proposed to offer deeper and more thorough teaching, it may simply be inappropriate. Strauss has addressed this issue regularly, notably in her Eight Problems with Common Core. And all concerned parties should at the very least have knowledge of her criticisms. That said, it's also important to acknowledge the claims that the Common Core is simply a step in the right direction in terms of standards actually being learning goals, as they should be.

That said, CC in theory is not a bad idea. It was an attempt by people to create a standard "floor" per grade level, so a kid who moved from Arizona to Illinois would be at roughly the same "grade level" no matter what. And it was an attempt to align grade level standards in literacy and math to some "standard" common to high performing nations, as well as better prepare kids for college and career. And, at least in math, the claim was that kids would "go deeper" and understand math "conceptually" in order to achieve "mastery" at each level. Thus, in theory, it's not a bad idea. And, in many ways, I am not opposed to CC, and have actually done a fair amount of promotion and staff development for at.

However, critics are crying foul for numerous reasons. The "standards" have never been tested with any data to prove they produce better results. They are not actually linked with any "international standard," of which there is none. They were created by a consortium of private interests, including textbook and resource producers and private testing organizations like the College Board. Thus, experts in the field including school districts and state boards were not consulted or involved. Two of the prominent voices on math verification committee, including a Harvard math prof, who were asked to sign off on the results (but were not included in creating them) refused to do so. They criticized the standards as a "move to the middle" that has lower expectations and is geared toward preparing students for community colleges and lower level institutions. Thus, the needs of advanced students are greatly compromised by this approach.
The standards were basically adopted and implemented in 45+ states with simply the signature of the governors, and there has been little support for training on the new standards. And if the teachers don't buy into the ideas, it's certainly a tough sell. Additionally, the very concept of "mastery" at any given level is seriously disputed, and it contradicts much research into how people actually learn. For example, we intro paragraphs and topic sentences at third grade, but as material complexity increases, so does the challenge of crafting a topic sentence. Thus, I have no expectation that my students "master irony" in one year. Finally, there is a serious pushback against the federalist component, as local control of schools is a foundation of the republic. We don't have a national education system, but the White House used Race-to-the-Top funding as basically a bribe - or stick - to force adoption. So people have a big problem with the federal government dictating to individual school districts what they have to teach.
It is a complicated issue, and while I actually support the theory, I am suspicious and disappointed in the manner in which the CC has been forced upon schools.

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