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Don’t trust the professional Common Core opponents

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New Hampshire’s Common Core opponents are trying to build a credible debate in the State on the back of some pretty shaky claims by anti-Common Core advocates who are barnstorming the country whipping up the locals.

Really, the whole my-expert-vs-your-expert thing is unnecessary.  Just read the standards.  Mark what you don’t want your child to learn.  You won’t see much.  And any district that wants to improve on the new standards is free to do it.

But you can also talk to your local educators experienced in the new standards.  The real work of developing new curricula and lesson plans is going on locally.  There is wide agreement that all this additional work is worth it.  Teachers see the benefits in the classroom immediately.

Even so, we will see these folks quoted.  They wrote an entire 20 page paper about how the math standards are not good enough without ever discussing the standards themselves.  So here’s some context.  I’ll update this further over time.

Professor Sandra Stotsky

You’ll see Sandra Stotsky quoted on the Common Core English Language Arts standards.  She lives in Brookline, MA and has a “professor emerita” affiliation with the University of Arkansas “Department of Education Reform,” though she doesn’t appear ever to have taught there.  Based on her resume, she appears never to have had a tenured faculty position nor published in recognized academic publications (I see none, but there might be a couple mixed in there). The department itself, with positions like the “Endowed Chair of School Choice,” and funding by the conservative Walmart and Wingate foundations, is not so much an academic department as an advocacy organization (here).  It has fewer than half a dozen doctoral students in any one class and lists only five articles ever published in peer reviewed journals, though one of those is one co-authored by Dr. Stotsky in something called the Journal of School Choice, so peer review might be something of an overstatement.

When Dr. Stotsky was a senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education in the early 2000’s, she was in charge of revising state standards, standards which had been highly respected for a long time but have now been replaced by the Common Core State Standards.

During the Common Core development process, Dr. Stotsky and others proposed including required reading lists in the ELA Standards.  The writing committee rejected these recommendations as being in the domaine of curriculum rather than standards.  Since then she has begun promoting her own set of alternative standards.

She will often be quoted saying that the Common Core requires that 50% of the reading in English class be non-fiction, a key talking point for the opponents.  There is actually no such requirement but, as recently as September 17th at a forum in New Hampshire, Dr. Stotsky said, knocking down a straw man:

“[at minute 2:20] There is no research to support Common Core’s stress on informational reading instead of literary reading in English class…..[4:20] Common Core expects English teachers to spend 50% of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts”

Not true.  Michael Patrelli of the Fordham Institute, a major source of Common Core analysis, describes what any reader of the Common Core standards would see in reading the standards (here is the page he is talking about in the introduction to the English Language Arts standards):

This is based on a misreading—or deliberate manipulation—of a two-paragraph section found on page 5 of the introduction to the Common Core that mentions the NAEP assessment framework, which suggests that teachers across content areas should “follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” Following NAEP’s lead would mean that fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders would spend 50, 55, and 70 percent of their time (respectively) reading informational text.

Some critics have led people to believe that these percentages are meant to direct learning exclusively in English classrooms. They are not. In fact, the Common Core immediately clarifies that “the percentages…reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in English settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts.” Reading in social studies and science class would count too.

Dr. Stotsky and others have also charged that the Common Core will push high-quality literature out of the classroom. Balderdash. In fact, the standards devote a disproportionately large amount of attention on demonstrating the quality, complexity, and rigor of the texts students should be reading each year. Appendix A includes a list of “exemplar” texts, the vast majority of which are works written by literary giants like Throeau, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Harper Lee, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The small number of technical documents included in these lists is dwarfed by the volume of great authors, works of literature, and literary nonfiction that the standards hold up as exemplary. That’s one reasons that E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, strongly supports the standards.

Mr. Patrelli’s point is widely understood.  That may be why Dr. Stotsky has changed the language she uses to make that claim – when she writes it.  Here is what she now says on the (very) conservative Pioneer Institute web site:

“….[there are] 10 standards for “informational” text and 9 for “literature” at all grade levels from K to 12. Based on these numbers, school administrators have told English teachers to reduce literary study to less than 50% of reading instructional time. And their interpretation of this 50/50 division in ELA reading standards has not been contradicted by the chief architect of Common Core’s literature standards, now head of the College Board, who has managed to confuse everyone by insisting that literature remains the focus of the English class.”

So outside the anti-Common Core pep rallies, Dr. Stotsky is now using an entirely fictional construct.  Unnamed “school administrators” are said to have mandated a 50% rule and the College Board hasn’t corrected the impression so now “everyone” is confused.  She now seems to be saying that her headline complaint about the Common Core – the issue she raised repeatedly when she speaks and that other opponents now repeat –  could be cleared up if the College Board issued a statement.

Actually, only Dr. Stotsky is confused.  She has been the primary marketer of this fiction which she is now walking back in written material.

Dr. Stotsky goes on in her New Hampshire presentation (video here and here) and writings with a long list of complaints and insider talk about what’s wrong with the Common Core but all of her assertions fall apart under scrutiny.

New Hampshire educators are not confused.  In my conversations with them, they see the standards as Mr. Petrelli does.  They are looking for a balance between fiction and non-fiction across all classes.  That’s how they have implemented the standards.  This is a debate that does not exist among educators but only among political opponents to the standards.

Professor James Milgram

New Hampshire advocates frequently cite Stanford mathematics professor emeritus Dr. James Milgram as “the only mathematician who sat on the Common Core Math Validation Committee” before going on to say that he refused to sign off on the standards.  Actually, there were eight math experts on the Validation Committee.  Six endorsed the standards.  Here they are.  It’s an impressive list.

While Dr. Milgram is widely cited by Common Core opponents, a very small minority of leading mathematicians share his low opinion of the math standards.  Start with the Fordham Institute’s authoritative study that analyzed the Common Core standards compared to those of every state in the country.  Fordham gave the Common Core standards a perfect score for content and rigor.

Then there is Dr. William Schmidt’s work.  Dr. Schmidt is a Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University and a leading expert on international mathematics performance.  He has been the director of the U.S. Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (U.S. TIMSS).  He  has compared the Common Core to high performing countries in grades K–8 and found them to be “world class.”  He reported that the Common Core State Standards “resemble the standards of the highest-achieving nations, and that they have more focus, coherence and rigor than most of the state standards they replaced.  He says that no state’s math standards – not even Massachusetts’ highly respected standards – were as close a match (a 90 percent consistency rate) to those of high performing countries as is the Common Core.

In addition, the presidents of every major mathematical society in America, representing hundreds of research mathematicians, support the Common Core.  That includes the American Mathematical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, the 80,000 member National Association of Mathematicians and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. These presidents lead organizations representing hundreds of research mathematicians and tens of thousands of math teachers. (here)

Finally, over 70 math experts, many from the most respected universities in the country, helped develop or provide feedback team for the math standards.

Hung-Tsi Wu, well-known Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at UC-Berkeley, was a member of the Common Core math development team.  He says,

“The Common Core mathematics standards succeed in being both mathematically coherent and grade level appropriate. Overall, they are the best standards that I have seen in the past 20 years. If we can design a professional development program of the same caliber to go with these standards, then our nation will be making a substantial first step towards educational excellence in mathematics.”

Actually, Dr. Milgram seems to agree.  He says,

“The reality is that they [the Common Core math standards] are better than 85 or 90 percent of the state standards they replace. Not a little better. A lot better,” said James Milgram, a mathematician at Stanford University who sat on the Common Core validation committee. But, he added, “that’s really a comment on the abysmal quality of these state standards.”

And this begins to highlight ground where advocates on both sides might agree: The Common Core math standards are much better than our previous standards, but not yet as rigorous as the best international standards.  Many feel that that would be too big a leap to make in one jump, that we will have to increase the rigor to that level in future enhancements of the standards.

In the late 1990’s, Dr. Milgram was the head of a group called “Mathematically Correct” that opposed earlier standards.  He has opposed most every major effort in math standards beyond having students memorize algorithms and facts.

Do a search on Dr. Milgram.  Read some of his Common Core opinions.  Most of us have no ability to assess their validity (but here is a post that highlights the dishonesty of his analysis).  So when Dr. Milgram asserts that the Common Core standards are two years behind international expectations by the 8th grade, fall further behind in grades 8 to 12 and that students are not prepared for Algebra by the 8th grade, it’s hard to determine whether you agree.  But, other than Dr. Milgram, there is wide agreement that the standards do include the prerequisite for Algebra in the eighth grade and that our educators are free to decide at the district level whether to require Algebra in the eighth grade.

Here is how the “Algebra I in 8th grade” question played out at the October 2 Nashua School Board work session on the role of the Common Core in the district’s curriculum.  Board member (and Republican state representative) Dr. David Murotake asked, based, whether he knew it or not, on Dr. Milgram’s erroneous assertion:

“I keep hearing that there is no 8th grade Algebra I in the Common Core State Standards math.  However, I find this a little confusing.  When I check my CCSS math references, I find that there are two different sets of math standards – traditional math and the other is integrated math.  In traditional math, I find that there is both 8th grade Algebra I and there is also high school Algebra I…[he goes on to identify in detail dozens of upper level algebra standards identified in the 8th grade algebra standard].

So, I’m just curious.  Am I misunderstanding something?  I find that there is a fair amount of rigor in the traditional math 8th grade Algebra I standards…[and in the high school standards].

I have been tutoring remedial Algebra I to high school students and college undergraduates since I was 17 years old.  That is now 42 years.  And that includes volunteering right here in Nashua High.  So am I misunderstanding something or is there possibly a confusion that since there is a fork in the Common Core math standards between integrated math, which does not break out Algebra and Geometry separately…is it possible that there’s a confusion here?”

An 8th grade teacher explains the difference between the traditional and the integrated, saying that the Common Core gives the district the choice of teaching math in the traditional way or integrating Algebra and Geometry but that Nashua has chosen the traditional fork.  She goes on to say,

“We are doing the Algebra I at the high school level based on the Common Core.  Some of the teachers at the high school level have told us that due to the regular 8th grade Common Core standards, they may be able to omit some of the things they now do in Algebra I because the students will be so prepared for the Algebra I coursework coming out of the 8th grade.”

Dr. Murotake: “So assuming that there actually are 8th grade Algebra I standards as well as high school Algebra I standards, first, we currently give credit towards graduation for the completion of 8th grade Algebra I.  Is that still the plan?”

Teacher: “That is correct.”

Dr. Murotake: “Secondly, we currently admit some percentage of well qualified 7th graders into 8th grade Algebra I.  Do we still plan on doing that?”

Teacher: “And some 6th graders, yes.”

Superintendent: “Just be aware that the Algebra I course in the 8th grade is a high school Algebra I course.  That’s why we award high school credit.”

The Nashua School Board discussion illustrates a couple of points. Dr. Murotake had obviously spent a good deal of time chasing down this bogus assertion from Dr. Milgram.   And the school board discussion itself lasted a good 15 minutes.  This is just one example of the waste of time the erroneous assertions of anti-Common Core advocates inflict on our school boards and educators and, in the end, parents and the public.

Secondly, you see that you get real answers from your educators rather than theoretical analysis from advocates posing as experts.  If you have a question about the standards or the curriculum, engage the superintendent, the principal or the teacher.  You will always get serious, detailed answer that you know applies to the every day learning experience of your child.

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