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Topic: Response to Essay: A critique of C C math standards
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Response to Essay: A critique of C C math standards
Posted: Dec 10, 2013 5:44 PM
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From The Washington Post / The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss,
Tuesday, December 10, 2013. See
A critique of Common Core math standards

By Valerie Strauss

I recently posted a piece on the future of high school math education
and the Common Core State Standards on math, which was the work of a
coalition of mathematicians, statisticians, teachers and curriculum
developers, that elicited a lot of interest. [ See
]The following response takes a critical look at that piece and the
Common Core math standards. It was written by Michael Goldenberg, who
holds a master's degree in mathematics education from the University
of Michigan, as well as master's degrees in English and psychological
foundations of education from the University of Florida. He writes
the "Rational Mathematics Education" blog [see ] and was a co-founder of the
group Mathematically Sane. He coaches high school mathematics
teachers in Detroit. You can read the piece that prompted his
reaction here. [See ]

By Michael Goldenberg

On Dec. 6, an essay from a group of noteworthy mathematics education
professionals entitled, "The future of high school math education,"
appeared on this blog. I responded here with a comment, a version of
which appears below with additional remarks. I sent it to all the
signatories in hopes of promoting a much-needed national dialogue
that should have occurred long before the Common Core State Standards
for Mathematics [CCSSM] were drafted, internally critiqued, and
approved (or not). [See
]As of Dec. 9, I had received a reply from only one of the authors,
and await permission to share that response publicly. Perhaps we can
have on this blog a conversation that is less burdened with some of
the more imaginative hypotheses about the Common Core as a whole and
the CCSSM in particular (e.g., that Bill Ayers played an authorship
or any other role in their creation).

It is difficult enough to have meaningful conversations about
mathematics teaching and learning in this country without the onus of
highly politicized and unfounded conspiracy theories that directly or
indirectly owe much to the work of Charlotte Iserbyt [See
] and Beverly Eakma. [See ] There has been,
after all, a national "math war" going on since at least the
early-to-mid 1990s.

And unfortunately, the fallout from that war has been to create an
enormous amount of nonsense, rhetoric, and malicious dishonesty from
many entrenched traditionalists - people whose minds are so closed
that they have and never will grant a single positive aspect of any
approach to mathematics teaching and learning at the K-14 level (that
is, up to the completion of the usual undergraduate non-math-major
calculus sequence), that is in any way pitched at those who are NOT
planning to become professional mathematicians, physicists,
engineers, computer scientists, or other members of the so-called
STEM careers.

In other words, these people want EVERY student to have to start from
day one in kindergarten as if the goal of ALL math teaching was to
get students to at least the master's level in mathematics. Those who
aren't ready or interested at 5 years old, and those who may never
wish to pursue that stratum of mathematics, simply don't matter. Some
of these people would, given the opportunity, return K-12 education
to the heavily tracked system that best serves the interests of a
small elite. There is ample evidence that this approach significantly
reduces the mathematical achievement of the vast majority of our
youngsters, ensuring that most of them will be terrified by and
turned off to mathematics, while at the same time denying them any
opportunity in school to encounter a broad enough sampling of the
subject to have any chance of finding something that appeals to them
and/or that they are successful with.

I believe that I understand why the signatories (most of whom I know
personally to some degree and nearly all of whom I know by reputation
as progressive mathematics educators) felt compelled to write in
defense of what they take to be the healthy core precepts inherent in
CCSSM. As will be evident in what follows, I think they are correct
in their championing of the Practice Standards, but mistaken in
pinning their hopes for the success of the battle on throwing their
support to the overall CCSSI, an initiative that, I argue below, is
fatally sick at its heart.

Let's play "pretend" for a moment. We'll pretend that: 1) the methods
by which CCSSM evolved and were foisted upon our public schools don't
matter; 2) neither do the for-profit forces promoting and funding its
development or their mercenary motives; 3) the myriad complaints
about developmental inappropriateness are unreasonable or irrelevant
(remember - we're playing "pretend"); 4) the failure to carve out
clear alternative paths by omitting key areas of mathematics (such as
discrete math) entirely from the content standards is not highly
questionable; 5) that a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to
curriculum is a fantastic idea; and 6) that the punitive use of
high-stakes, summative tests employed in a manner that will keep all
useful formative information away from students, teachers, parents,
and other key stakeholders is not a highly destructive policy.

Despite all that creative use of imagination, as well as the best
intentions of the signatories of the essay and the people who served
on the various committees affiliated with the Common Core Math
standards, I claim that CCSSM will fail, and fail miserably. And no
one should understand the reasons better than these signatories,
having been intimately involved with the National Council of Teacher
of Mathematics's (NCTM) attempts to get its 1989-2000 standards
widely accepted and implemented.

That is because the same things that undermined NCTM's reform efforts
remain unaddressed by CCSSM and its supporters: the need for a
LONG-TERM effort that:

1) engages support and input IN ADVANCE on a mass basis by reaching
out to stakeholders in a meaningful (rather than token) way;

2) that takes advantage of the known history of reform efforts in
math education to avoid perceived and/or actual past failure (see
"The" New Math, and The Math Wars c. 1989 - present);

3) that creates a cadre of teachers who are on-board with and up to
the task of teaching in keeping with the Practice Standards;

4) that openly and pointedly acknowledges the impossibility and
undesirability of rolling out 13 years of "new" math education in one
year, and instead calls for introducing CCSSM a year/grade at a time.
In keeping with a long-range approach rather than the quick fix the
signatories properly decry but in fact are inherently supporting in
suggesting that we "stay the course," mechanisms for collecting and
making use of feedback from teachers, a la the approach taken in
Japan by its Ministry of Education, are set up and employed from the

The result of this is that that by the time Year 2 begins, the second
year of teaching CCSSM in the lowest grades (and we might seriously
want to rethink the notion that we need "rigorous" academic standards
in Kindergarten, replete with high-stakes tests looming) has been
informed by the experiences of the first year, and materials have
been tweaked accordingly;

5) vigilant efforts to continue to build support for the Practice
Standards among parents, teachers, and other stakeholders must be a
year-long focus EVERY year. This may mean finding ways to phase out
teachers who clearly are unable and/or unwilling to commit to the
core ideas in the Practice Standards;

6) every effort must be made to change the focus of assessment from
punitive, summative, standardized instruments that are not part of
the learning cycle, to true formative (not "interim") performance
tasks that give all useful data to teachers, parents, and students
first and foremost;

7) the focus on the myth that education is a race or competition must
be soundly rejected;

NCTM, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and other
national and state professional organizations need to stand up for a
vision of educational improvement that acknowledges economic and
social reality, that rejects the business-as-usual, self-serving
nonsense that the vulture capitalists and billionaires have been
using to destroy public schools and replace them with for-profit
charters and vouchers.

While I am aware that some of the above issues are touched upon in
the original essay to which I am responding, too many of these points
are not addressed adequately or at all. Once we stop playing
"pretend," educators must acknowledge that CCSSM is deeply flawed
and irredeemably tainted by the overall Common Core Initiative, Race
to the Top, the high-stakes testing monster, and the ugly
fingerprints of corporate educational deform.

We risk setting progressive reform mathematics education back to the
pre-1989 era. And in the long run, we will not get see any of the key
principles in the CCSSM Practice Standards implemented meaningfully.

Twenty years from now, the best we can hope for is that we'll still
be having these same arguments. At worst, all debate will be
effectively shut down. Most of the rest of the industrialized world
will have adopted the child-friendly, humanistic ideas that NCTM
developed, to the great advantage of their students, while American
students will be forced to subsist on curricula and pedagogy that
would be better suited to East Germany, North Korea, Stalinist
Russia, and other Cold War totalitarian regimes. The irony is vast,
and would be funny if the victims weren't children.

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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