What Do Math Educators Think About the Common Core?

By Erik W. Robelen — April 24, 2013 8 min read
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I was in the company of some 7,500 math educators last week, during the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Denver. Along the way, I had the chance to hear from a lot of people about the Common Core State Standards: what they think of them, their early experience with the standards, and what about the common core perhaps keeps them up at night.

The big take-aways in this very unscientific sample—gleaned from conference presentations as well as hallway conversations I had with teachers at the Denver Convention Center—were mostly high regard for the standards, mixed with some nervousness about implementation, including the tests to come.

The NCTM gathering came at a time when pushback against the standards appears to be mounting, including with a recent vote by the Republican National Committee to oppose the common core, calling it an “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” In addition, a Senate committee in Alabama voted this month to require the state to abandon the common core. (However, we just learned that Senate leaders in Alabama have decided not to bring the bill up for debate in the full chamber, meaning it’s effectively dead for now. Read all about it over at the State EdWatch blog.)

“The common core is at a very critical juncture,” said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of math and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and the director of the university’s Charles A. Dana Center. “Last week, the Republican National Committee took a vote of no confidence [in the standards], and many people have raised concerns about the [two common-core testing consortia].”

“We as the math teaching profession need to assert our beliefs and theories about what children should learn and how they should learn it,” Treisman said during his address at NCTM’s April 17-20 conference. “There is a lot of beautiful stuff in the common core. The practice standards are exquisite. ... So as we go out and think about our role, let’s start with the common core, make it work, refine it, and assert our role [in the next generation of it]. ... But if the common-core collapses, it’s going to be a bad thing.”

‘A Different Game’

Alan Schoenfeld, a longtime NCTM member and a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, also offered a favorable view of the standards, as well as the forthcoming assessments.

“The common-core standards and assessments put us in a different game,” he said. “And if they do it right, we’ll actually have tests that are consistent with the values [we hold].”

“Of course, the content counts. I’m a mathematician. You’ve got to get it right, and get it right in the right ways. But the real action is in the mathematical practices, and this is going to be a challenge in a lot of ways.”

Schoenfeld has written extensively on math education and was the lead author for grades 9-12 of NCTM’s Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, published in 2000, which was designed to outline the essential components of a high-quality math education.

‘We’ve Been Lying to Ourselves’

Matthew Larson, a math specialist with the Lincoln school district in Nebraska (and a board member for NCTM), also praised the standards. (I should note that Nebraska is among the five states that have NOT adopted the standards, though one Nebraska teacher I met at the conference suggested this could change eventually.)

“It’s going to be more challenging, it’s going to be more rigorous,” Larson said in his presentation. “And I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing, because we’ve been lying to ourselves and everybody else. ... We’ve inflated our levels of proficiency.”

Larson also praised the Standards for Mathematical Practice, as well as the push to focus in greater depth on less content.

“One of the most powerful parts of the common core is we’ve taken things out,” he said. “People always say, ‘I wish we had more time to teach this stuff. ... We can’t get through the entire set of objectives.”

“Let it go!” he said to those who struggle at this push to reduce content coverage. “There’s a lot of freedom in just throwing stuff away.”

Now I’ll move from the conference sessions to what I heard when chatting up a random selection of math educators taking a break between sessions.

‘We’ve Got to Try This for 15 Years’

Cliff Bara, who teaches high school math and science at Troy Junior & Senior High School, in Troy, Mont., describes the common core as a big improvement over the Big Sky State’s former standards.

“Montana was historically a state with real poor math standards,” he said. “You could align a baloney sandwich to the Montana standards. In the past, I’ve looked to places like Massachusetts, so I’m thrilled with the common core. ... It really lays out year by year those topics that require your attention.”

That said, Bara has some concerns. For one, he argues that the standards do a better job on the goal of focus—covering fewer topics in greater depth—at the K-8 level than in high school, where he suggests the amount of content may be excessive. “I think they lost some of that focus that they were after at the high school level,” he said. “But I still appreciate having the high school standards.”

Bara said he’s worried about the expectation in the standards that all high school students meet a level of algebra roughly equivalent to Algebra 2. “We have some kids that could take it five times, and no matter how you present, how you approach it,” they likely would not pass the course. “I think it’s a pretty heavy demand right off the bat that everybody finishes Algebra 2. It’s going to take a few years to get there.”

In the end, Bara insists that the standards deserve time, a lot of time, before people judge their impact. Indeed, it will be more than a decade before we have students who experienced the new standards throughout their K-12 career. With that early preparation, Bara said he expects many current students in middle and high school to struggle with the new expectation.

“We’ve got to try this for 15 years as a nation,” he said, “because I think there can be some really good things that happen here. The common core can spread out out to teacher preparation programs, publishing companies, the whole culture could change. That’s my dream.”

His colleague Mary Ann Drury said, “When I first read the common-core standards, I kind of went, ‘Ahhhhh!’ But then I stepped back and realized that it could really be a good thing.”

‘The Thing That Terrifies Me’

I also met a couple of math teachers from a school proudly named Colorado’s Finest Alternative School, in Inglewood.

“The standards are great,” said teacher Eric Trujillo. “The thing that terrifies me is that so much [math content] has been pushed down from high school to middle school. ... The first few years will be incredibly painful.”

His colleague Alex Kravitz was also upbeat about the standards, though he cautioned they can only go so far.

“The common core is not a panacea,” he said. “It’s still standards.”

‘Why? How Do You Know?’

“We’re in the planning stages, realigning what we have in our current curriculum to what the common core is demanding,” said Mike Giuliano, a math teacher at J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. “We’ve started to talk, we’ve made lists, but we haven’t made any major steps yet.”

Overall, he said, “It’s more demanding in terms of depth of knowledge, I feel, so we need to push that more. It’s never OK to just push basic skills and not apply them or push further, but now it’s like an imperative that you need to be aware of depth of knowledge.”

He said he’s glad to have common standards. “I like the idea that as a country, the majority of the country, at least, will be heading in the same direction.” However, he said the assessments “kind of scare me.” That’s especially true, he said, because 15 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on those assessment results.

This point about having common standards was echoed by Victoria Waite, a 5th grade teacher at Wallen L. Andrews Elementary School in Whittier, Calif. “I’ve always wondered why every state has its own standards,” she said.

Waite said she’s not yet teaching to the standards, but her district and school is moving in that direction.

“The way we’re teaching needs to change [to align with the standards], but not so much the content,” she said. “In a lot of ways, the common core compared to California state standards, we were [already] pretty rigorous.” But, she said, “It comes back to how we’re teaching it.”

I also met several teachers from Monte Cassino, a private P-8 Catholic school in Tulsa, Okla. They said their school had opted to embrace the common-core standards. (As I reported last fall, many private schools, especially Catholic schools, are implementing the common-core standards.)

“The expectations are high, which is nice,” said one of the teachers.

Another of the teachers echoed the point about the challenge of embracing the math-practice standards (which include making sense of problems and persevering in solving them, and constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, for example).

“We do that now,” she said, “but to have that be a major emphasis, and to have it be universal all the way from kindergarten through 8th grade” will be a significant change.

This focus on the math-practice standards calls to mind what Matthew Larson from the Lincoln district had to say. He urged math teachers to post a set of questions on the back wall of the classroom, not for students, but as a daily reminder to themselves. They are: Why? How do you know? Can you explain...?

“If you’re asking these sorts of questions [of your students] and generating that kind of discussion,” he said, “you’re more likely teaching in the spirit of the common core.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.