"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

MA Math Professor's Take on Common Core Math - It Falls Short

Setting standards is trickier business than most people think.  On the one hand standards make things easier. Imagine trying to buy a set of sheets if we hadn't chosen 4 basic sizes of bed. Finding ones to fit your bed could take far longer if there weren't such standardization, and you might have to settle for a set that was merely close enough in size to work. Of course by setting standard sizes we limited innovation in bedding. All beds are rectangular in nature (let's not bring up those custom ones in the Poconos hotels) The way my son sleeps, circular might actually be better. But we set a standard and everyone stopped there for convenience.

The same is true for education standards. Nintey plus percent of people will stop teaching or stop learning once they have met the standard. Its the nature of standards. They are limiting. You would think then that the standards writers would have shot for the highest end of skills knowing that schools will stop teaching once the students reach competence in that standard skill. Marketing hype aside, the fact that they only allow another fifteen measly percent of content to be taught on top of the standards is an indication that CCSSI developers agree with this phiosophy and believe they have shot high with Common Core standards.

A Massachusetts math professor agrees with my outlook on standards and believes Common Core's writers aimed in the wrong  place when it comes to math.

Charles Ormsby, a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, gave his general review of the CCSSI math standards to The Deseret News. He says of standards in general, "We all know that whatever standard is set, some students will exceed the standard and some will fall short — many far short."  This would seem to make the case for setting the standard as high as possible to bring the performance of all students up.

Professor Ormsby provides this explanation of why, therefore, the CCSSI math standards will ultimately shortchange k-12 students.
"It appears that Common Core standards set an expectation that students will achieve some reasonable level of competency in algebra through algebra II, but no expectation of competency in, or even a basic familiarity with, trigonometry. Whether a student has aspirations in the STEM disciplines or not, I think this is a major failing of the standard. Expectations in mathematics are being set well below the level needed to prepare students for post-secondary studies in a broad range of disciplines — not just the STEM fields.

Consider the range of likely outcomes if the standard was set, not at algebra II, but at basic competency in trigonometry... If we targeted trigonometry, then those that fall well short of the standard might at least absorb a modicum of geometry and basic algebra (a reasonable foundation for entering the trades; a path that should be more respected).

Those that fall just short of the standard will have mastered algebra II — a good foundation for accounting, health care workers, management sciences, liberal arts, etc. These students could conceivably pursue a STEM career after some remediation (e.g., taking trigonometry at a community college).

Students that hit the standard (mastery of trigonometry) would be ready to tackle calculus without remediation and therefore would be prepared to pursue either a STEM major or a serious career in, for instance, finance or economics.

A student that exceeded the standard would leave high school with a solid algebra/trigonometry foundation plus some (possibly a substantial) degree of understanding of calculus and could enter college with advanced placement credit.
This is the distribution of outcomes we should seek"  
 Here, here Professor Ormsby!

Schools can, and some will, choose to teach beyond the standards of CC. Those schools will be the exception and will only continue with the practice so long as there are conscientious passionate people pushing for it, because the main system will only require that they achieve student competency through Algebra II.  Most schools will stop there. Such is the nature of standards.

A more ominous warning comes at the end of Professor Ormsby's piece about the impact that will have on college math programs.
"The sad fact is that because students are not college-ready, colleges are dumbing down their curriculums to be student-ready. The downward spiral of expectations makes the "college ready" standard a moving/descending target.
I'll close by noting that this view from the trenches is from a trench in Massachusetts: one of the highest ranked states in the country for high school mathematics achievement. What does that say about the state of affairs in the other 49 states?"
DESE has questioned by push back against CC and stated exasperatedly "They're just standards," as if that makes them innocuous. More recently, in a piece sent to  to MO Superintendents they attempt to dismiss CC critics by saying, "So now others, as predicted by NSPRA, are attempting to define what CCSS is and these critics are turning it into a messy and misinformed political football being tossed at local school district leaders."

I don't see a lot of politics in Professor Ormsby's assessment of the standards.  Seems pretty logical and well informed to me.


  1. My school Superintendent confirmed for me there is no calculus in Common Core. She said they will teach it anyway. My question, for how long will they be able to teach anything not in the scope of CC? We barely have time with these standards. Now there are the College, Career & Civic Life Framework for Social Studies (C3), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and I've been told Art standards are being considered as well as Health Education standards. Where will we put all these new standards? 24 hour school? year long school? Cindy Rose

  2. Cindy are you in MO? We need to scrap the progressive social studies curriculum and go back to teaching history.

  3. Of course there's no calculus in Common Core and schools will "teach it anyway." That's because the vast majority of US high schools that do offer calculus offer AP calculus, which has its own curriculum and exams. No need to put that into a set of US high school standards. What IS in the CCSS math is two sets of approaches to a 12th year math course (which would of course be 11th year for kids planning on taking calculus as seniors): one looks like a typical precalculus course, the other more like an "advanced math" course. You can read the descriptions in the Common Core Math Content Standards and decide what you think.

    I'm an opponent of the entire Common Core enterprise, but I'm sick to death of the dis- and misinformation running rampant on the 'Net about what the actual shortcomings of them are and the "reasons" for opposing this initiative. It's not Socialism, it's not Obamacare in education form, it's not the UN taking over world education, or any of dozens of other Wing Nut explanations straight from the land of tin hats and flying saucers.

    Do oppose national standards curricula, and tests. But do it for sensible reasons and stop repeating every dumb-ass thing that occurs to you or that you read, particularly if the main thrust of the 'reasoning' is grounded in making Obama out to be the anti-Christ. He'll be gone in less than four years, but the billionaires who are funding and pushing this crap won't be. They're the folks you need to understand, worry about, and debunk.

  4. Any time the FEDERAL government gets involved in setting local education curriculum, there is a serious problem. Rather than reading EPA material, how about we spend more time teaching our kids about the constitution, and how the federal government has no place in local schools.


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