Academic journal article Education Next

The Common Core Math Standards: Are They a Step Forward or Backward?

Academic journal article Education Next

The Common Core Math Standards: Are They a Step Forward or Backward?

Article excerpt

More than 40 states have now signed onto the Common Core standards in English language arts and math, which have been both celebrated as a tremendous advance and criticized as misguided and for bearing the heavy thumbprint of the federal government. Assessing the merits of the Common Core math standards are Ze'ev Wurman and W. Stephen Wilson. Wurman, who was a U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush, is coauthor with Sandra Stotsky of "Common Core's Standards Still Don't Make the Grade" (Pioneer Institute, 2010). Wilson is a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, served on the National Governors Association-Council of Chief State School Officers "feedback group" for the Common Core standards, and was mathematics author of Stars by which to Navigate? Scanning National and International Education Standards in 2009: An Interim Report on Common Core, NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA.

Education Next: Are the Common Core math standards "fewer, higher, and clearer" than most state standards today? Can you provide some specific examples where you think the Common Core marks a step forward or backward?

Ze'ev Wurman: Common Core standards may in fact be clearer and more demanding than many, though not all, of the state standards they replaced. The Fordham Institute reviewed them last year and found them so. While I have no reason to doubt the technical quality of that review, there is good cause to au note what it does not say.

It does not say that Common Core standards are fewer. Indeed, if one compares them to the better state mathematics standards like those of Minnesota or California, they are more numerous. Minnesota's standards fill 42 pages and California's 59 pages, while the Common Core takes 73 pages even without the advanced statistics or calculus sections that are included in California's standards. Counting the standards rather than pages, in grades 1 to 4 California has, on average, a few more standards than Common Core, but in grades 5-8 the Common Core standards are more numerous than California's.

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Fordham's review does not unequivocally say the standards are higher, either. They may be higher than some state standards but they are certainly lower than the best of them. For example, the 2008 report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, Foundations for Success, called for fluency in addition and subtraction of whole numbers by the end of grade 3, and fluency in multiplication and division by the end of grade 5. This is also what California calls for, along with high achievers like Singapore and Korea. (Japan and Hong Kong finish with multiplication and division of whole numbers even earlier, by grade 4.) Yet the Common Core defers fluency in division to grade 6. Fractions are touted as the Common Core's greatest strength, yet the Common Core pushes teaching division of fractions to grade 6 without ever expecting students to master working with a mix of fractions and decimals. Students in Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong achieve fluency in fractions and decimals in grade 5.

Nor are the Common Core standards necessarily clearer. They may be clearer than many state mathematics standards, but they still tend to be wordy and hard to read. Table 1 compares a few grade 4 California standards with their Common Core counterparts.

Andrew Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, recently evaluated the Common Core standards with his colleagues, and their conclusion was stark:

  Those who hope that the Common Core standards represent greater focus
  for U.S. education will be disappointed by our answers. Only one of
  our criteria for measuring focus found that the Common Core standards
  are more focused than current state standards ... Some state standards
  are much more focused and some much less focused than is the Common
  Core, and this is true for both subjects. … 
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