On Tuesday, October 8, Bill and I had a two-hour phone conversation. One thing we discussed is how suburban, affluent or semi-affluent districts were treating the CCSS vs. how they are interpreted in high-needs, inner-city, and very poor districts. What I've been seeing in my work over the last four years with high needs districts in Michigan and expect is the case nationally is that poor districts are under enormous pressure to comply with what they perceive is a completely prescriptive set of content standards, backed by the impending doom of massive failure on both current and coming high-stakes standardized tests, resulting in a host of dire consequences for schools, administrators, and teachers (regardless of whether students are in any way benefiting from the alleged rigor of the new national standards.
McCallum said that the intention of the writing group was that everyone would see the CCSS as guidelines with flexibility. I have to say that this makes sense to me from the inside ACADEMIC (not political) perspective of mathematicians and mathematics educators: these are by and large NOT people looking to dictate a one-size-fits-all, rigid, prescriptive approach to math.
As a result, my question becomes: assuming that he was being forthright, and I have no reason at all to believe otherwise, why is that message not repeatedly being hammered home to ALL school districts in every state that's signed on? Why isn't it clear to parents that the committee that wrote the math standards would support creative variation on those standards, including the building of, for example, a math program for computer science - one that would include discrete mathematics - a project I strongly support. Or any number of other possibilities that fit the needs of the local community, students, and teachers? I seriously doubt that this is at all clear to many folks. And I know for a fact that in high-needs, poor, minority districts, the interpretation is 180 degrees opposite: that there's no wiggle room, that every word of every standard has to be followed exactly as written, and probably in the order presented in the CCSS.
Please note: I don't claim that this represents the POLITICAL perspective of the forces backing the CCSS in order to push privatization: the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Pearson, the ETS and ACT, etc. And I suspect those people and organizations understood from the beginning what the impact of documents that are perceived as a federal mandate and which come with high-stakes tests whose scores are linked to teacher and school evaluations would be on poor schools: fear, loathing, and extremely meticulous obedience to the letter of the "law," resulting in non-stop test preparation. Take the punitive consequences of the tests out of the equation and this whole project potentially becomes very different. Not wonderful perhaps, but qualitatively better. Get teachers and administrators to treat the standards as a basis for creativity instead of blind obedience (just as teachers sometimes treat textbooks as Bibles rather than useful resources from which they are free to depart) and I can see leveraging this initiative into something positive.
But those tests aren't going away, they're not going to be treated non-punitively, and it's clear from Race to the Top that the Obama/Duncan approach is inextricably tied to screwing and ultimately destroying most if not all neighborhood public schools to the advantage of corporations and privatizers. I can't see any way out of that equation, no matter how much I believe the sincerity of Bill McCallum, because the structure surrounding implementation, assessment, and "enforcement" is just too clearly tied to hurting poor districts, closing schools, destroying unions, and whipping teachers into line in the vast majority of schools.
Still, I found myself feeling slightly more optimistic on Wednesday as I mulled all the implications of our conversation. Maybe there was a way for schools to turn lemons into lemonade after all. Maybe the good things I saw in the Common Core Math a few years ago could be salvaged. But it wouldn't be easy. ============= I had a follow-up e-mail exchange with Bill McCallum on Thursday to get permission to discuss publicly what we'd gone over and to clarify my understanding, which I suspected was not completely aligned with his . And now I'm a little less sure about some of what I thought he was saying about degrees of freedom for using the content standards as a jumping off place for creativity. First of all, McCallum stated that districts are still obligated to follow their state standards. There is wiggle room (15% can be added by individual STATES (this is a key thing I misunderstood from our Tuesday chat: districts have to operate within innovation, if any, coming down from the state) to what's already in the content standards, but it is expected that the given content for each grade level will be taught. Note that there's no prescription about precisely how that is to be done, with what materials it is to be done, but there ARE those pesky Practice Standards that describe a general set of what might best be called "mathematical habits of mind" that are expected to inform the overall thrust of what students are doing in math as they are learning the content. And those are what I saw several years ago that gave me hope that good might come from all this for mathematics education in the US. Of course, that was simply a quick reaction, not a deep analysis.
For many educational conservatives, however, including the very vocal critics of the math standards like Stanford's R. James Milgram, Sandra Stotsky, Ze'ev Wurman, and some other Math Wars veterans (of those three, Milgram is the only mathematician: Wurman is an electrical engineer, and Stotsky's degrees are in French Literature and literacy education, not mathematics or mathematics education), it's those Practice Standards that really stick in their craws. (Another interesting aside: two mathematicians who were strong critics of the NCTM standards in the '90s, H. H. Wu of UC-Berkeley and Dick Askey of U of Wisconsin, are apparently pretty happy with the CCSS math standards, which indicates surprising disagreement in the old "Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD crowd. This dissension may in some ways echo the split on a wider basis on the educational/political right regarding the CCSSI, with some organizations like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute coming out strongly in favor of the Common Core).
Many of the objections to the Common Core math I read on-line in fact stem not from anything that is explicitly in those standards, but rather problems that are showing up taken from various sources, including new editions of "classic" textbooks - some more traditional, some more "progressive" such as EVERYDAY MATH and INVESTIGATIONS IN NUMBER, DATA & SPACE at the K-5 level - and some brand new books written entirely with an eye to the Common Core, along with some state materials like the math modules on the ENGAGENY site from New York State.
To my mind, many of these objections are very much the same sorts of things some people objected to about NSF-funded curriculum projects and the math textbooks they started producing in the early 1990s. These were heavily influenced by the educational philosophy codified in the NCTM Process Standards and later illustrated by explanations and exemplary problems and tasks in NCTM's Illuminations series.
While I think many of these are powerful and useful, I realize that is not a universally-held opinion, now and has not been over the last quarter-century. Some younger parents who missed the Math Wars (at least weren't particularly aware of them, if at all) are raising a lot of the same kinds objections repeatedly heard from some quarters in the 1990s, many of which boil down to "this isn't the way I learned to do this, hence, it must be bad" though of course there is a great deal more being said, including objections to what is perceived as both subtle and glaringly obvious political indoctrination from the left in textbooks, homework problems and assessments (this includes, but is not limited to, asking questions about environmental and social justice issues).
I would love to say that if people who feel this way were shown how in fact there are meaningful advantages for students to the sorts math instruction that has been promoted, generally with limited success, since the late 1980s, and that if such folks were able to suspend their disbelief and start to recognize that indeed, there IS a lot of sense in what's going on, we could all relax and assume "the math wars are over."
But there's an enormous catch to all of this that goes well beyond the emotional and political reactions.That catch has to do with teachers, teacher training, teacher education, teacher professional development, and the extremely small number of teachers who either experienced (positively) some of these progressive math education approaches, or who, like me, came to appreciate them only after already finishing K-12 mathematics. If few teachers have been taught this way, then it is certain that many teachers either will not be sympathetic to what's being pushed by the Common Core (regardless of whether it's horrible or wonderful or somewhere in between), or they will simply not be well-positioned to teach with these methods effectively.
And that last is perhaps the greatest danger of all. Mathematics educators have seen this happen before: in the late 1950s/early 1960s with the "New Math" and in the last several decades with various "NCTM Standards-style" text book series across various grade bands. I see this as an enormous flaw in the entire CCSS math project, one that was predictable and remains basically un-addressed. The point may be moot, however, given the intense political reactions from many parents against the whole Common Core project. That, too, will be unfortunate in the long haul.
I've been harshly critical of NCTM's failure to far more successfully get the progressive ideas it has been advocating since the 1980s implemented widely or well in American mathematics K-12 classrooms, particularly because it has been unable to bring far too many teachers on board and to reach the critical core of American parents. As long as teachers misunderstand and/or resist what has been preserved in the Common Core math Practice Standards, the Content Standards will matter very little and even many teachers who are inclined to try to include these principles in their teaching will be likely to return to that with which they are most familiar. Furthermore, parents who've not been induced to buy in or at least remain open to the Practice Standards can be relied upon to continue to protest to districts, states, and nationally, as well as to individual teachers and principals, to try to ensure that their children see mathematical activities created in the spirit of the Practice Standards in a harshly negative light, and in many other ways to undermine efforts to shift mathematics education in the US towards a more process-oriented, thoughtful classroom practice.
And finally, resistance from teachers and/or parents notwithstanding, even the most progressive districts, schools, teachers, and parents are likely to crumble under pressure from plummeting test scores that seem virtually a fait accompli for spring of 2015 and several national testing administrations thereafter. I have stated many times that I don't believe this will be an accidental outcome, but rather one that has been expected and desired by the financial and political interests driving the CCSSI.
Thus, for any of the positives I glimpsed as feasible in my conversation with Bill McCallum to have reasonable hope of coming to fruition, several things must happen, all of which require broad cooperation from several quarters:
2) A concerted effort must be made to better-educate both the education community, parents, and the general public about what might be called the good, bad, and ugly in the Common Core State Standards. There are simply far too many transparent lies circulating thanks to propaganda efforts from Arne Duncan, various corporations and foundations, and others in favor of the CCSSI, and too much highly-politicized paranoia, rumor, and fantasy coming from a host of irresponsible sources, at least some of whom seem to view the situation as yet another opportunity to attack Barack Obama. It serves no useful EDUCATIONAL purpose to lie, distort, exaggerate, and simply invent various horror stories and secret plots lurking behind every math problem, English assignment, and these day pretty much anything and everything that happens in public schools. For those wearing tea-colored glasses, there is simply no story too absurd or implausible not to be believed and spread.
3) A serious, calm, and patient national conversation about education and the aims of public education needs to begin. It's questionable whether any such conversation is possible in the current national political climate, but it is necessary to try. Until we have a reasonable picture about whether the nation wants national curriculum standards or not, it is absurd to believe that the American people are going to cooperate with any effort to impose one against their national will. The state and federal governments are going to have to take seriously the notion that without the willing participation of parents and educators, anything like a "common core" standards movement is doomed. That means, too, that the private financial interests must be completely and utterly rejected, kept out of the conversation and the process, their funding must be rejected despite the easy political expedient of letting Bill & Melinda Gates and friends fund and run everything to whatever ends they see fit. And if what emerges is, as I expect it will be, a return to more local and flexible curricular standards, guidelines, and assessment practices, the powers that be will need to heed and respect that reality.
Of course, there are many complexities to the above that I'm not addressing, not the least of which are serious concerns about states legislating curricular frameworks that contain highly controversial elements - attempts to promote unconstitutional programs and standards. My immediate reaction to potential concerns about violations of the separation clause, attempts to reinstate racist practices, and the like is two-fold: the courts have been generally stalwart in tossing out such attempts, and part of the price of having a large diverse country is that the American people cannot ever assume that controversial issues are settled simply because a given law is passed or court decision rendered.
Every generation has to fight for the principles upon which the nation was ostensibly founded and those which have evolved subsequently through many bitter struggles. There is no easy way. The temptation to hand everything over to either the federal government or, as increasingly the case, the shadow corporate and billionaire government must always be resisted, however. It is clear that those trying to destroy public education are waking up to that fact, but the fight is far from won. They have vast financial and political resources. The rest of us have numbers, passion, and deep concern for our children. In the end, we have no other choice but to fight for the truth.
********************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org