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Topic: IV Chat With Bill McCallum and Reflect
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
IV Chat With Bill McCallum and Reflect
Posted: Oct 15, 2013 2:32 PM
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From @ THE CHALK FACE, Sunday, October 13, 2013. See
Two Hours and Two Days: I Chat With Bill McCallum and Reflect

By Michael Paul Goldenberg

Some followers of my writing may recall that one of my first
contributions to @the Chalk Face in early September was a piece in
response [see
] to a blog entry by Bill McCallum [see the blog entry at
] one of the lead writers for the Common Core State Standards in
Mathematics, in which he was harshly critical of many of those
opposing the mathematics standards he and his group had produced. I
was concerned that like many in the mainstream media, Professor
McCallum was unfairly branding all the critics as lunatic right-wing
extremists. As anything but right-wing and most assuredly a critic of
the Common Core, I felt that criticism like mine was being
marginalized and ignored. McCallum replied to both that blog piece of
mine and another one in which I responded to his comments. An even
more recent piece of mine [see
] elicited such flattering comments from Bill McCallum that I felt it
was time for us to speak directly. [See

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

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:

1) The high-stakes testing apparatus that is essential to the forces
of destroying public schools in order to privatize the entire
enterprise and spread the proliferation of charter schools and
vouchers must be brought to an immediate stop. Parents need to
actively organize or join existing opt-out movements [see ].
Teachers, building principals [see
], and district superintendents of good will must support those
efforts and, where at all possible, begin their own resistance
movements similar to what we saw in Seattle [see
]. There is much going on, but this effort must become so widespread
that it is impossible for the Obama/Duncan administration, the
privatizers, and compliant national teachers organizations to ignore
it or pretend that most Americans support Race to the Top and the
Common Core.

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

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