I’ve stayed out of the Common Core nonsense. The objections involve much fuss about federal control, teacher training, curriculum mandates, and the constructivist nature of the standards. Yes, mostly. But so what?
Here’s the only important thing you need to know about Common Core standards: they’re ridiculously, impossibly difficult.
I will focus here on math, but I’m an English teacher too, and could write an equivalent screed for that topic.
I’m going to make assertions that, I believe, would be supported by any high school math teacher who works with students outside the top 30%, give or take.
Two to three years is required just to properly understand and apply proportional thinking–ratios and percentages. That’s leaving off the good chunk of the population that probably can’t ever truly understand it in non-concrete situations. Proportional thinking is a monster. That’s after two to three years spent genuinely understanding fraction operations. Then, maybe, they could get around to understanding the first semester of first year algebra–linear equations (slopes, more proportional thinking), isolating variables, systems, exponent laws, radicals—in a year or so.
In other words, we could use K-5 to give kids a good understanding in two things: fractions and integer operations. Put measurement and other nonsense into science (or skip it entirely, but then remember the one subject I don’t teach). Middle school should be devoted to proportional thinking, which will introduce them to variables and simple isolation procedures. Then expand what is currently first semester algebra over a year.
Remember, I’m talking about students outside the top 30% or so (who could actually benefit from more proportions and ratios work as well, but leave that for another post). We might quibble about the time frames and whether we could add a little bit more early algebra to the mix. But if a math teacher tells you this outline is nonsense, that if most kids were just taught properly, they could learn all this material in half the time, ask some questions about the demographic he works with.
Right now middle school math, which should ideally focus almost entirely on proportions, is burdened with introductions to exponents, a little geometry, some simple single variable equations. Algebra I has a whole second semester in which students who can’t tell a positive from negative slope are expected to master quadratics in all their glory and all sorts of word problems.
But Common Core standards add exponential functions to the algebra one course load and compensate by moving systems of equations and exponent laws to eighth grade while much of isolating variables is booted all the way down to sixth grade. Seventh grade alone bears the weight of proportions and ratios, and it’s one of several curricular objectives. So in the three years when, ideally, our teachers should be doing their level best to beat proportional thinking into students’ heads, Common Core expects our students to learn half of what used to be called algebra I, with a slight nod to proportional thinking (and more, as it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself).
But you don’t understand, say Common Core devotees. That’s exactly why we have these higher, more demanding standards! We’ve pushed back the timeline, to give kids more time to grasp these concepts. That’s why we’re moving introduction to fractions to third grade, and it’s why we are using the number line to teach fraction numeracy, and it’s why we are teaching kids that whole numbers are fractions, too! See, we’ve anticipated these problems. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be fine.
See, right there, you know that they aren’t listening. I just said that three to four YEARS is needed for all but the top kids to genuinely understand proportional thinking and first semester algebra, with nothing else on the agenda. It’s officially verboten to acknowledge ability in a public debate on education, so what Common Core advocates should have said, if they were genuinely interested in engaging in a debate is Oh, bullpuckey. You’re out of your mind. Four years to properly understand proportional thinking and first semester algebra? But just for some kids who aren’t “smart”? Racist.
And then we could have an argument that matters.
But Common Core advocates aren’t interested in having that debate. No one is. Anytime I point out the problem, I get “don’t be silly. Poor kids can learn.” I point out that I never mentioned income, that I’m talking about cognitive ability, and I get the twitter version of a blank stare somewhere over my shoulder. That’s the good reaction, the one that doesn’t involve calling me a racist—even though I never mentioned race, either.
Besides, CC advocates are in sell mode right now and don’t want to attack me as a soft bigot with low expectations. So bring up the difficulty factor and all they see is an opportunity to talk past the objection and reassure the larger audience: elementary kids are wasting their time on simple math and missing out on valuable instruction because their teachers are afraid of math. By increasing the difficulty of elementary school math, we will forcibly improve elementary school teacher knowledge, and so our kids will be able to learn the math they need by middle school to master the complex, real-world mathematical tasks we’re going to hand them in high school. Utterly absent from this argument is any acknowledgement that very few of the students are up to the challenge.
The timeline isn’t pushed back for algebra alone. Take a look at Geometry.
Geometry instruction has been under attack for quite some time, because teachers are de-emphasizing proofs and constructions. I’ve written about this extensively (see the above link, here, and here). Geometry teachers quickly learn that, with extensive, patient, instruction over two-thirds of their classes will still be completely incapable of managing a three step proof. Easy call: punt on proofs, which are hard to test with multiple choice questions. Skip or skate over constructions. Minimize logic, ignore most three dimensional figures (save surface area and volume formulas for rectangular prisms and maybe cylinders). Focus on the fundamentals: angle and polygon facts (used in combination with algebra), application of pythagorean theorem, special rights, right triangle trig, angle relationships, parallel lines, coordinate geometry. And algebra, because the train they’re on stops next at algebra II.
Lowering the course requirements is not only a rational act, but a sound curriculum decision: educate the kids in what they need to know in order to succeed pass survive have some chance of going through the motions in their next math class.
But according to everyone who has never worked with kids outside that 30%, these geometry teachers are lazy, poorly educated yutzes who don’t really understand geometry because they didn’t major in math or are in the bottom third of college graduates. Or, if they’re being charitable—and remember, Common Core folks are in sell mode, so charity it is—geometry teachers are just dealing with the results of low expectations and math illiterate elementary school teachers.
And so, the Common Core strategy: push half of geometry down to middle school.
Here’s what the Common Core declares: seventh graders will learn complementary and supplementary angles and area facts, and eighth graders will cover transversals, congruence, and similarity.
But wait. Didn’t Common Core standards already shove half of algebra down to middle school? Aren’t these students already learning about isolating variables, systems of equations, power laws, and proportions and ratios? Why yes, they are.
So by virtue of stuffing half of algebra and geometry content into middle school, high school geometry, as conceived by Common Core, is a stripped-down chassis of higher-order conceptual essentials: proofs, construction, modeling, measurement (3 dimensions only, of course), congruence and similarity, and right triangles.
Teachers won’t be able to teach to the lowest common denominator of the standards, not least because their students will now know the meaning of the lowest common denominator, thanks to Common Core’s early introduction of this important concept, but more importantly because the students will already know the basic facts of geometry, thanks to middle school. The geometry teachers will have no choice but to teach constructions, proofs, logic, and all the higher-order skills using those facts, the part of geometry that kids will need, intellectually, in order to be ready for college.
Don’t you see the beauty of this approach? ask the Common Core advocates. Right now, we try to cover all the geometry facts in a year. This way, we’re covering it in three years. Deeper understanding is the key!
High school math teachers treat Common Core much like people who ignored Obamacare until their policy got cancelled. We don’t much care about standards normally: math is math. When the teachers who work with the lower half of the ability spectrum really understand that the new, dramatically reduced algebra and geometry standards are based on the premise that kids will cover a good half of the math now supposedly covered in high school in middle school, that simply by the act of moving this material to middle school, the kids will understand this material deeply and thoroughly, allowing them, the high school teachers, to explore more important topics, they will go out and get drunk. I did that last year when I realized that my state actually was going to spend billions on these tests. I was so sure we’d blink at the money. But no, we’re all in.
Because remember, the low proficiency levels we currently have are not only based on less demanding standards, but they don’t include the kids who don’t get to second year algebra by their junior year. That is, of the juniors taking Algebra II or higher, on a much harder test, we can anticipate horribly low proficiency rates. But what about the kids who didn’t get that far?
In California (I’ll miss their reports), about 216,000 sophomores and juniors were taking either algebra I or geometry in 2012-2013. California doesn’t test its seniors, but to figure out how many seniors weren’t on track, we can approximate by checking 2011-12 scores, and see that about 128,000 juniors were taking either algebra I or geometry, which means they would not have been on track to take an Algebra II test as juniors. That is, in this era of low standards, the standards that Common Core will make even more rigorous, California alone has half a million students right now who wouldn’t have covered all the material by their junior year. So in addition to the many students who are at least on paper on track to take a test that’s going to be far too difficult for–at a conservative guess–half of them, we’ve got the many students who aren’t even able to get to that level of math. (Consider that each state will have to spend money testing juniors who aren’t taking algebra II, who we already know won’t be able to score proficient. Whoo and hoo.)
Is it Common Core supporter’s position that these students who aren’t in algebra II by junior year are by definition not ready for college or career? In addition to the other half million (416,000 or so) California students who are technically on track for Common Core but scored below basic or far below basic on their current tests? We don’t currently tell students who aren’t on track to take algebra II as juniors that they aren’t ready for college. I mean, they aren’t. No question. But we don’t tell them.
According to Arne Duncan, that’s a big problem that Common Core will fix:
We are no longer lying to kids about whether they are ready. Finally, we are telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education.
If all we needed to do was tell them, we could do that now. No need for new standards and expensive tests. We could just say to any kid who can’t score 500 on the SAT math section or 23 on the ACT: Hey, sorry. You aren’t ready for college. Probably won’t ever be. Time to go get a job.
If we don’t have the gumption to do that now, what about Common Core will give us the necessary stones? Can I remind everyone again that these kids will be disproportionately black and Hispanic?
I can tell you one thing that Common Core math was designed to do—push us all towards integrated math. It’s very clear that the standards were developed for integrated math, and only the huge pushback forced Common Core standards to provide a traditional curriculum–which is in the appendix. The standards themselves are written in the integrated approach.
So one way to avoid having to acknowledge a group of kids who are by definition not ready for career and college would be to require schools to teach integrated math, as North Carolina has done. That way, we could mask it—just make sure all students are in something called Integrated Math 3 or 4 by junior year. If so, there’s a big problem with that strategy: American math teachers and parents both despise integrated math. I know of at least one school district (not mine) where math coaches spent an entire summer of professional development trying to convince the teachers to adopt an integrated curriculum. The teachers refused and the district reluctantly backed down. Few people have mentioned how similar the CC standards are to the integrated curriculum that Americans have consistently refused. But I do wonder if that was the appeal of an integrated curriculum in the Common Core push—it wouldn’t increase proficiency, but would make it less obvious to everyone how many students aren’t ready. (Of course, that would be lying. Hmm.)
At around this point, Common Core supporters would argue that of course it’s more than just not lying to the kids! It’s the standards themselves! They’re better! Than the lower ones! That more than half our kids are failing!
And we’ll only have to wait eight years to see the results!!!
Yeah, didn’t anyone mention this? That’s when the first year of third graders will become juniors, the first year in which Common Core magic will have run its full reign, and then we’ll see how great these higher standards really are! These problems—they just won’t be problems any more. These are problems caused by our lower standards.
Or: As we start to get nearer to that eight year mark, we’ll notice that the predictions of full bore Common Core proficiency isn’t signaling. With any luck, elementary school test scores will increase. But as we get nearer and nearer to high school, we’ll see the dreaded fadeout. Faced with results that declare a huge majority of our black and Hispanic students and a solid chunk of white and Asian students are unready for career and college, what will we do?
Naw. That’s eight years out! By that time, reformers will need a next New Thing to keep their donors excited, and politicians will have figured out the racial disproportionality of the whole college and career ready thing. We barely lasted ten years with No Child Left Behind, before we got waivers and the next New Thing. So what New New Thing will everyone be talking about five to six years out, what fingers will they be pointing, in which direction, to explain this failure? I don’t know. But it’s a good bet we’ll get another waiver.
Is it at all possible that the National Governors Association thought up the Common Core as a diversion, an escape route from the NCLB 100% proficiency trap? It’s not like Congress was ever going to get in gear.
But it’s an awfully expensive trap door, if so. Much cheaper to just devise some sort of Truth In Education Act that mandates accurate notification of college readiness, and avoid spending billions on tests and new materials.
Notice how none of this is a public conversation. At the public debate level, the only math-based Common Core opposition argues that the math standards are too easy.
At which point, I suddenly realize I need more beer.