(This series was inspired by a recent interview with Arizona state Senator Al Melvin who, after voting to bar implementation of the Common Core standards adopted by his state, was asked by a reporter if he’d actually read the standards, replied, “I’ve been exposed to them.” As an educator, I recognize that phrase as code for “No, I haven’t.”)
There’s a lot of excited political jibber-jabber concerning the Common Core standards. However, this is not a political blog so I just wanted to look at the standards themselves. I’m primarily interested in the Common Core standards for mathematics education. There is also a set of standards for English language arts and literacy but I don’t feel I have the background to do them proper justice. (And this is a blog about math, after all.)
The Common Core State Standards Initiative has a Web site describing their work and you can even download a copy of the standards document if you wish. In theory, the standards adoption policy is entirely voluntary on a state-by-state basis. In actual practice, the Department of Education is making Race For The Top funding (about $4.5 million worth) to individual states contingent on adopting the standards. This seems political but it’s not that different than when the Federal Government wanted the states to adopt a 55 mph speed limit and tied it to interstate highway funding with the National Maximum Speed Law back in 1974 (signed into law by Richard Nixon, as a matter of fact) and people complained about that as well. But that’s politics and that’s not why I’m here.
(That being said, Race For The Top does have it’s issues that aren’t really connected to Common Core Standards and perhaps it might have been smarter to give Common Core it’s own funding bucket rather than tying it to RFTT. But again, that’s politics.)
As a general idea, having national education standards is a good idea. The majority of developed countries have them. For us they would only apply to K-12 and are meant to ensure that a high school diploma from a one room school house in Butte, Montana can be considered equivalent to one from a rich public school in Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, humans being the complicated beings that they are, the reality is much messier.
The standards for math are divided into mathematical practice and mathematical content. The content section has sub-sections for grades K-8 with the sub-section for High School further divided by subjects including: Number and Quantity, Algebra, Functions, Modelling, Geometry, and Statistics and Probability.
The standards for mathematical practice describe the types of expertise that teachers should be developing in their students:
The standards for content describe specific objectives and outcomes for each grade level but (despite using the word ‘content’) do not specify how an objective should be met or with what materials (textbooks, multimedia, etc.). That would be left up to the state and local authorities.
So ‘practice’ covers the overall outcomes for K-12 and ‘content’ states what general topics are covered and when.
In addition, even if a state adopts the standards the implementation decisions are made at the state and local level. In addition, implementation of the Common Core standards does not require data collection. Personally, I think this bit is a little weaselly. There’s a saying in business circles: You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure. So there will be data collected, but by the states themselves and not Washington or even the United Nations.
So far it doesn’t look that bad to me on the surface. However, looks can be deceiving, you can’t judge a book by its cover, something something freedom. So I’ll be back with a more detailed look in later posts.