In Defense of Common Core Criticisms

In an article called “In Defense of the Common Core”, Scott F. Marion, president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, argues that the CC will stop the book publishers from dictating curriculum and how subjects will be taught:

Even those Jeffersonian critics of the Common Core would have to acknowledge that while they are fighting against one authority, they are allowing a more distant and surreptitious entity (textbook publishers) to dictate the curriculum in their schools. It is hard to blame publishers, because except in limited cases, they survive by appealing to the broadest market possible.  

The Common Core has helped change this in a couple of key ways. First, the textbook publishers, spurred in part by evaluations produced by organizations such as EdReports, have begun to produce materials aligned with the Common Core. Theoretically, this will lead to more focused, shorter, and relevant texts in many states.

What he fails to mention is that, with respect to math, before Common Core, math education was dominated by the reform-math approaches embedded in the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).  Interpretations of these standards are in part–some might even say in large part–responsible for why the textbooks evolved to the products they are today. He seems to think that the Common Core standards will result in changes in textbooks, assuming that alignment with Common Core will produce something different than what we have today. In fact, interpretation and implementation of Common Core is along the ideological lines of reform math and that for all intents and purposes, the Common Core math standards has become a reform math document, an opinion shared by not a few mathematicians, including Jim Milgram, Wayne Bishop, and Frank Quinn.

The CC math standards are promoted as ‘pedagogically neutral’, as ‘guidelines, not a curriculum’ and ‘Teachers can use whatever tools they want to help students meet the standards’. Why is it, then, that many Common Core inspired assignments bear the reform/progressivist imprints: student-centered and discovery-driven assignments; group-based and real-life-relevant; touted as fostering ‘critical-thinking’?  One clue comes from the language embedded in the standards–what Tom Loveless of Brookings Institution refers to as the “dog whistles” of math reform, picked up by reformers.

The words “explain” and “understand” are the prime examples of this, which are embedded in many of the standards. These are key signals to the reformers/progressivists. And given the reform background of some of the people on the math standards team, I do not believe this is entirely coincidental. The three lead writers were Phil Daro, Bill McCallum and Jason Zimba. Phil has a degree in English literature, and I’m told has a minor in math and taught high school algebra, briefly. He has been active for years in promoting reform math. Bill McCallum, a math professor who teaches at University of Arizona has been sympathetic with the reform approach. Jason Zimba who has a doctorate in Physics and taught at Bennington College is less sympathetic to reform math ideas than the other two; but public statements he has made indicate he is not averse to such ideas. The rest of the writing team as well as the team that reviewed and commented on the standards, were largely reform oriented.

Scott concludes his defense of CC by saying “If we reject the Common Core, painstakingly developed with input from educators and researchers, we are essentially ceding our standards back to textbook publishers.”

Ignoring the fact that few if any educators and researchers were sought in developing the standards, if anything is being ceded, it is its how CC is being interpreted. Being a neutral standard regarding pedagogy means that it has become law. Being neutral is the same as authorizing all schools to continue to use techniques that cause many of the problems in math. Alignment with the CC standards, far from taking us away from the status quo, means that there will only be more of the same.

Frank Quinn, a math professor at Virginia Polytehnic University, summarizes the state of affairs in a paper that examines how Common Core treats how fractions are to be taught.  He states:

Elementary education was largely insulated from the pressures driving the profession. Instead, for at least the last century, the main pressure on educational methodology comes from the need to sell it to administrators, legislators, and the general public. The current Reform movement represents a breakthrough in this direction, as powerful in its own way as any technical innovation in professional practice. They have made a reduction in skill levels sound exciting, and done it so well that they have become the dominant movement in just a few decades. The introduction to the Common Core document, and the “Standards For Mathematical Practice” that follow, offer visions and abstract goals that are much more compelling than any Traditional or Modern account. They have the practical effect of reducing skill expectations almost to zero, but this gives the Movement a further tactical advantage: modern methods are distinguished by their efficiency and power, but in the Common Core there is not much for them to do. A hammer does not look good when it is used to squash ants.

Using Quinn’s analogy, the only breakthroughs with respect to Common Core appear to be ways to squash ants more effectively with hammers.

Best Writing on Mathematics, 2016

Happy to report that the article that Katharine Beals and I wrote which was published in the online Atlantic in November, 2015, was selected in the anthology of “Best Writing on Mathematics, 2016”. 

The article generated a great deal of interest at the time and drew both hostile and supporting comments in the comment section and in several math education blogs at the time.

Katharine and I are honored to be included in this anthology.