In my last missive (The “Dog Whistles of Math Reform”) I referred to Tom Loveless’ characterization of the Common Core (CC) math standards containing code words embedded within the standards. Such words serve as cues for reform-minded/ progressivist educators in interpreting what are purported to be pedagogically neutral standards.
One reader, subtly inferring I was a Chicken Little, raised the question that if the CC standards lend themselves to such reform-oriented interpretations, wouldn’t that simply mean that people would continue to focus on the reform-oriented teaching they were inclined to practice? And if so what is changed? Wouldn’t things just stay the same?
The short answer is no, things would not stay–and have not stayed–the same. With CC now being the vehicle of “national standards” (except for those few states that have not adopted them) such interpretations have essentially become law. The CC standards have not changed the minds of reform minded educators, nor the education schools that promote such philosophies. The narrative that CC is pedagogically neutral while making sly winks via the embedded “dog whistles” is the same as authorizing all schools to continue to use techniques that cause many of the problems in math–it institutionalizes the problems.
With such prevailing interpretation, schools that might not have done so in the past feel compelled to change instructional practices. These changes are made in the name of “alignment” with CC. The philosophies and practices promoted by ed schools now have considerable more cachet. Such instruction now carries with it an implicit authorization: CC requires you to teach this way.
In the year before CC went into effect in California, I was working at a middle school where teachers were routinely told by school–and school district–administration that “Next year there will be no more teacher at the front of the room saying ‘Open your books to such and such page, and do these problems’. There would be less reliance on textbooks, and more reliance on group-work, student-centered and inquiry-based approaches. This, we were told, was in keeping with what CC required. [Shameless self promotion: I wrote about this transition year in the book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher“]
The reform ideology permeating CC’s implementation is nowhere more evident than in how the teaching of the standard algorithms are implemented. Many reformers believe that teaching standard algorithms first eclipses students’ understanding of why the procedure works. In the CC standards, the first mention of a standard algorithm is in the fourth grade—for multidigit addition and subtraction. A delay also happens with multiplication (delayed to fifth grade) and long division (delayed until sixth grade). Prior to that, the standards refer to drawings/strategies based on place value–but not specifically to the standard algorithms.
In line with reform type thinking, there are schools that happily comply with what they think is a mandated delay in the teaching of these algorithms, and teach the alternatives. As a retired teacher of thirty years commented on my last missive regarding the alternatives taught during the delay:
“These new ‘strategies’ simply become new procedures, which small children attempt to learn and memorize because that is what many small children do. Of course these strategies are unworkable, mathematically incoherent and very confusing.”
According to two of the lead writers of the standards, Jason Zimba and Bill McCallum, however, the standard algorithms can be taught earlier than the year in which they appear. Zimba in fact says this in writing, and recommends teaching it in first grade. Specifically, he states
“The Common Core requires the standard algorithm; additional algorithms aren’t named, and they aren’t required.”
But word is not getting out. Some teachers in the lower grades have been sending notes home to parents telling them not to teach students the standard algorithms at home.
I still maintain a guardedly optimistic outlook however, as summarized in my closing statements in the post I referenced at the beginning of this one. Read it, and send a link to your local school board.