How to Write a Pro-Common Core, 21st Century-Skills-Based Polemic

You’ve probably seen this before.  Someone, probably in their twenties, thinking they are holding their own among a group of highly educated people, prattling on about the uselessness of most college courses and disciplines and the value of a PhD.  The group listens politely and after the outburst continues their conversation as if the young orator hadn’t said a word. The young person thinks that they are pretending they didn’t hear the polemic because they didn’t want to hear the truth.

The type of foolishness that one engages in during one’s twenties can be forgiven because of youth, inexperience, and the envy that comes from realizing but not accepting one’s place in society. Fortunately most such people grow up.

But the same thing is occurring with alarming frequency in the field of education in general and math education in particular.  This phenomenon may be attributed in part to the ease in which one can air one’s views on internet-based platforms, such as blogs and social media.  But such views are also published in so-called peer-reviewed journals, in which the peers have known each other and have been taking in each other’s laundry for years.  One reads their polemics in places such as Phi Delta Kappan, the journal of the American Education Research Association (AERA) and various publications of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

While people who have done legitimate educational research in the field of cognitive science have been critical of what has been written, the people who should be ignored are the ones holding court.

I recently read a piece published by which unequivocally and uncritically supports the Common Core standards.  One such piece caught my attention and since the writing of poorly informed and unscientific polemics seems to be the new standard, I thought I would provide a guideline on how to construct such papers, using this particular atrocity.

State that STEM is more than just “technical”. That is, STEM workers include support staff, like lab techs, technical writers, people who don’t necessary know math or science in other words.  Using such logic, one can say that the medical profession also includes medical secretaries and custodians, which would give me some relevance in the medical field when I worked as a janitor at the University of Michigan medical school during the summer.

Recent claims that the market for STEM workers is saturated are based upon a narrow definition of STEM.  When I advocate for STEM thinking and STEM skills, I have the 4 C’s in mind: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.  While I realize some STEM jobs are in higher demand than others and that some sectors are, indeed, saturated, I don’t think most 21st Century employers prefer employees that can’t work together, can’t communicate well, and can’t figure their way out of a paper bag. I suspect market analysis for STEM jobs does not include all the support roles such as technical writers (need physics) or quality assurance (operating coordinate measurement machines).  But, as Hacker points out, those skills are not developed by performing tedious math processes, especially those largely performed through a memorized sequence.


Point out that Common Core fixes these problems by leaving out what this author and others of her ilk thinks are tedious and useless (but from which she and others benefitted in their careers). Instead, CC focuses on (wait for it) “deeper learning” like exponential functions, which it pushes down into Algebra 1 when students need considerably more experience with basic algebraic procedure.  Having taught exponential functions from a CC-aligned algebra textbook, I decided to leave such lessons until the last part of the year to get to it if I have time.

 The problem could be all but fixed if teachers were using materials accurately aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Love them or hate them, CCSS weeds out most of the minimally-extensible, boring, tedious procedures and leave room for explorations and developing numeracy.  But the extraneous procedures remain in unaligned texts and are encoded into curricula, leaving teachers with little choice other than to teach them.

As such, I agree with Hacker who wrote “The Math Myth” that Algebra 2 is not only unnecessary for graduating high school but that it is unnecessary altogether given the arcane, and tedious things it teaches that are of questionable use.

 I believe most teachers are doing the best they can with sometimes impossible situations.  Most explain the procedures before showing students what to do. However, students quickly figure out they can pass tests in the short-term by zoning out during the explanation if they focus on the steps.  Hacker points to many examples of boring, tedious procedures that are in traditional textbooks.  He argues that it is wrong to require all students to learn those procedures, and I agree with some of his examples. 

Ignore that education is about giving students opportunities, not slamming doors shut. Make arguments about the requirement for Algebra 2 to graduate high school being onerous and is preventing students from graduating and ignore that some of the topics that used to be taught in algebra 1 are left out of CC.  Also do not say that the CC treatment of algebra 2 similarly waters down what is presented; rather state that it focuses on few topics in more depth.  Omit mentioning that such action jeopardizes those who are truly committed to majoring in STEM and that Jason Zimba once remarked that CC does not present a path to AP calculus, nor a path to more selective universities (not to mention to a STEM career).

However, it is difficult to imagine why one would want a sixteen-year-old to make academic decisions that could set him or her back a year or two at college. After all, it is not uncommon for college students to change their majors multiple times.  I believe the better idea is to limit topics in high school math to those in the CCSS and connect those topics to thought processes we all use in real life.  Some, like Hacker, argue for two tracks:  one for calculus and one for statistics.  The CCSS balances the two with respect to content, keeping students’ options for both.

Follow these steps and you too can be an education hero–and maybe even be invited to give talks at NCTM! Who knows what the future has in store for you.  Goodness knows we know what’s in store for our students.



9 thoughts on “How to Write a Pro-Common Core, 21st Century-Skills-Based Polemic

  1. Employers do indeed want people who can work together, communicate well, and can figure their way out of a paper bag. But generally not at entrant level.

    At entrant level most jobs are pretty tedious — and the ability to follow instructions and work the full day are what people are looking for. You don’t have to work as a highly skilled team member, you just have to work.

    It’s only as you rise up the chain that people start to value critical thinking and all those “21st Century skills”.

    There’s very little more tedious than some entry-level noob thinking that they can solve all the organisations problems after they’ve been there five days. Spare me first-year teachers who think they’ve got it all sorted, particularly.

    In general people know this. They know that the people at the bottom don’t make the big decisions. They know that when you start a job you get to do what you are told for a while. Apparently education specialists don’t know this, however.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chester is right. When I was young, I had to change my resume to list specifically what content and skills I had developed, whether in math or programming – FORTRAN, Pascal, C, and I had to show examples of the complexity of my work. Businesses are looking for a functional skill slot to fill. At higher job levels, skills, content knowledge, and experience define your level of understanding. Getting promoted into a position that controls creativity and project management depends on many factors, but it’s never driven by a top-down selection based on “collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.” It’s a bottom-up process built on skills. Technical tracks lead to management tracks, never the other way around. Sometimes, however, bosses get up into middle management and begin to fail because they’ve lost their skills and content knowledge – don’t get me started on Agile Software Development. And I’ve seen specific cases where companies keep almost pathological employees who have needed skills. Educators search for and find views that justify their hypotheses. You can always find them, but they don’t define reality. Educators want to believe these ideas because it’s all they have – it’s their only academic turf.

    Lane Walker redefines STEM (which was originally defined by educators and NOT STEM people – it’s a stupid term) and raises many strawmen, like being successful in math with just rote understandings. Can we once and for all lose that self-serving stupidity? Her goal is to redefine Algebra II to match the pseudo Algebra II of CCSS, but she never deals with needs of various career paths or how CCSS defines a no remediation in college math slope that starts in Kindergarten. I was amazed at the audacity of my son’s Kindergarten and first grade teachers when they lectured me on understanding in math. I never got that from my son’s traditional (generally from industry) teachers in his high school AP Calculus track.

    Educators want to turn less into more. Lower CCSS standards miraculously produce better understandings than those generated by successful math “zombies” who get all of the good grades. One could argue that there are more productive paths in math for those not destined for college programs that have true STEM requirements, but those other high school paths have to be aligned with the math requirements of future career paths, NOT the sensibilities and whim of K-12 educators. Their goal is to redefine math in their image, NOT help students prepare for the needs of specific career paths.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So let’s talk about critical thinking, the fourth ‘C’. What does it mean? Can we start with Feynman’s Cargo Cult lecture and how the main idea is not to fool yourself. That’s generally enforced with peer review papers, but what happens when a whole field is filled with like-thinking people who can’t seem to question basic assumptions? Why do we keep hearing that traditional teaching causes rote skills and that there are many students who can get good grades, but not have a proper level of understanding? Why do they promote less as more? Where are their examples of STEM success after filtering out what we parents now have to do at home? Do they even know what understanding means in math with different levels and abstraction? Why don’t we require fourth graders to be able to add in octal? Why not start with proofs in first grade. Why don’t we ever hear complaints about the rote learning of telling time or counting change?

    And finally, why do we never hear about individual style of learning applied to school choice? What seems to matter is NOT critical thinking, but rationalization and enforcement of their philosophy.


  4. Lane Walker refers to a report questioning the need for STEM students that is really all about the H-1B program. This argument is old and as someone with a master’s degree in computer engineering, I might also argue that the STEM shortage/H-1B solution is used to lower salaries, not just fill need. There is plenty of work to be done and available workers (especially with the H-1B program), but companies still won’t hire people. This isn’t about not having enough workers. It’s about how companies can get 50+ hours a week out of workers without paying them more. You might get a good salary, but you pay a price for it.

    Then she refers to Andrew Hacker’s “The Math Myth” and says: “I wholeheartedly agree with Hacker and others he quotes that Algebra 2, touted as the gateway to STEM opportunities, has done more to lower graduation rates than any other course.” Pseudo-Algebra II as a CCSS requirement and lower graduation rates have nothing to do with STEM career preparation. If you fail at Algebra II or are allowed to skip it, then many more than STEM careers will be eliminated.

    Then Walker claims a broader definition of STEM with: “When I advocate for STEM thinking and STEM skills, I have the 4 C’s in mind:  collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.”

    Why does she do this after she claims that there is no big demand for STEM jobs? We then get this:

    “I suspect market analysis for STEM jobs does not include all the support roles such as technical writers (need physics) or quality assurance (operating coordinate measurement machines).  But, as Hacker points out, those skills are not developed by performing tedious math processes, especially those largely performed through a memorized sequence.”

    What!?! Let’s redefine math to make it not math so that people can feel good about being good at math without calling it something else. They could define a subject and call it 4C’s, but no. There is no problem or question about proper high school math preparation for true STEM careers, no matter what the demand. It is the traditional AP Calculus track. Colleges don’t have a problem with this and careers don’t have a problem with this. The problem only lies in the minds of educators, and Hacker is a professor of political science.

    Walker then says: “Why doesn’t high school curriculum align to CCSS?”

    Um, because there are some students who really need STEM-level math of at least Pre-Calculus. You don’t just make it go away by redefining STEM. Fine, go ahead and allow something other than Algebra II to satisfy CCSS, but don’t claim that it’s STEM or even something that will help students pass their nursing degree math requirements. Many teachers see the problems of education as what walks into their classrooms rather than overall longitudinal and curriculum problems. Teachers see students with problems, but don’t try to figure out whether they are finding these students or creating them.

    So Walker wants to “improve” Algebra II by doing the following:

    Align closely with the intent of CCSS
    Shore up holes and gaps in student understanding while extending and moving forward
    Weed out superfluous algebra content
    Make real connections for math thinking
    Add modeling scenarios

    She is not “improving” Algebra II, but redefining it. It is no longer a pre-requisite for Pre-Calculus and she shows no curriculum continuity with success for any specific degree program math requirements.


    • Right; and as Jason Zimba admitted at a public hearing, CC does not lead to AP calculus in high school. Nor is it sufficient for those students who want to go to a top university. Those students learn what they need to know whether it means hiring tutors or taking courses at the community college. In the school district where I live, schools have adopted CPM, an inquiry-based math program starting at middle school and going all the way through algebra 2. This is in line with the Superintendent’s philosophy which he has posted online–a constructivist manifesto that includes the standard cliches about “digital natives” and that today’s students can find out anything they need to know via Google. Thus, the role of the school is to teach students how to learn.

      In the affluent areas of the school district, learning centers are doing a good business. In the poorer areas, well, what do students need all that math for anyway?


      • They still have an AP Calculus track, don’t they? If so, then how do they explain away the academic and STEM gap that appears between kids from affluent versus poor families? I’ve seen some comments that indicate that reaching top levels in math is a two or more generational thing. They know the lower-slower track is worse, but then claim more understanding and mathiness. It would be one thing if they just said that slower and different is better for some kids, but they never seem to worry about whether they are helping these kids or creating them and leaving them with future career dead ends.


      • What does Zimba say about kids stuck in a low CCSS track where the top level (“distinguished”) in math starts in Kindergarten and means no remediation in math at a community college? Where is the curriculum track and support for those kids who get none at home? It’s all over by the 7th grade non-linear change in math track slope that deviates completely from CCSS. I distinctly remember what I had to do at home with my math brain son in K-6 to eliminate that non-linear change. In his AP Calculus track in high school, I had to do nothing. Some seem to think that the gap and change in slope can be dealt with using summer classes or doubling up in high school even though some of the best students have to work hard with just one math class.

        David Coleman at the College Board is a big proponent of CCSS, but they also define AP classes. They also push a Pre-AP curriculum. Clearly, they know that this slope change is a problem. This is what they say about Pre-AP- it’s a work in progress for the fall of 2018:

        “Pre-AP is a new program that offers instructional resources and classroom-based assessments to schools that are interested in earning an official Pre-AP designation from the College Board.
        The Pre-AP program will offer consistent, high standards in focused courses that help build, strengthen, and reinforce students’ content knowledge and skills. Pre-AP courses will get students ready for AP and other college-level coursework. And they’ll be open to all. ”

        Note that this is for “content knowledge and skills”!!!!! Then it says this:

        “The program is launching in fall 2018 with five new courses for ninth grade, with other courses to follow.”

        Ninth grade?!? Way too late. Hello? Is anyone home? They don’t get it. One of the five classes (9th grade) is called Pre-AP Algebra 1. Really? Really?!? What is their curriculum sequence to AP Calculus- geometry in 10th grade, trig/pre-calc in 11th? Um, they don’t say.

        Then it says this:

        The Pre-AP program’s objectives are to:
        “Significantly increase the number of students who are able to access and complete college-level work before leaving high school.”
        “Improve the college readiness of all students.”

        Oh, I see. It’s NOT an AP-readiness sequence. It’s a recovery course from really low slope CCSS courses in K-8, but they say that it “will get students ready for AP and other college-level coursework.”

        I started watching their video and one of the first slides has the title: “College Completion is a Social Justice Issue”

        Really? This is a separate issue, but what about the social justice issue of the systemically low expectations of CCSS if their goal is college for all. Go ahead and set them up for failure in K-8 and only then offer an incompetent Pre-AP remediation class.

        Hello! Is anyone home? K-8 fuzzy, low expectation and full academic inclusion education is untouchable, but they go ahead and extol content knowledge and skills starting in 9th grade.

        David Coleman can’t seem to connect AP reality with the fuzzy fairyland of K-8 education. They can’t admit that CCSS offers no social justice (educational!) pathway in K-8 to AP classes and that they are unwilling to fix that because educational pedagogy trumps reality.


  5. El Sistema, a music “system” in Venezuela takes kids from the barrios and gives them a path to get to and play at Carnegie Hall by high school. It’s not multi-generational. It starts at pre-school ages and has both mixed ability orchestras along with individual private lessons that focus on skills and content knowledge. However, starting in early grades, students have the ability to audition for regional and state orchestras – and they compete equally with kids from more affluent families. That would never happen if the skills (high expectation private lessons) only started in 9th grade. Note that the only kids who get accepted to All-State orchestras in the US had years of private lessons. Kids who were only in band in school never get to that level. Band is PBL, and no amount of playing inspiring and complicated pieces will get you to All-State. AP Music classes are filled with and dominated by students with years of private lessons.

    How would that work for sports – have low expectation, fun soccer camps where there is no separation by level or ability? That’s generally the rule for early grades, but it very quickly changes. Are academics different even though all AP classes focus on mastery of skills and content. Pre-AP values skills and content knowledge, but they are allowed to be trashed in K-6 and then they talk about “social justice.” They try to claim the high ground of understanding and social justice, but they fail both. In high school they offer AP classes and never ask us parents how we had to support and push our kids to get them there. It must be magic fairy dust PBL engagement.

    I’ve seen cases of transferring El Sistema to the US, but it fails when it focuses on early mixed-ability orchestras and not on the private lessons and competition that pushes and inspires hard work. That’s what happens when educators implement a program like El Sistema rather than music professionals.

    The “real world” is competitive – everyone knows that. Isolating kids from that world is not engaging, inspiring, or helpful. It’s delusional. In the hopes of sparing kids from difficulties, they claim natural learning and push off the difficulties to the point where they are impossible to overcome. It’s easier then to blame the students, parents or society, and I’ve taught frustrated students in seventh grade SSAT prep classes who actually said that they were just stupid.

    In less than 20 years, El Sistema gets kid from the barrios to the BBC Proms:

    You don’t get to the Proms just by being good for kids from the barrios. Watch the video. That was NOT done with PBL. My son has met some of these kids at Interlochen Arts Camp. Those results are what I call social justice, not being happy if you are the first in your family to get to the community college with no remediation.


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