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The quality of the Common Core Standards stands up to close scrutiny

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The Common Core State Standards adopted by the New Hampshire Board of Education on July, 2010, are a major new resource to New Hampshire school districts.  The new standards have been a major step forward for New Hampshire public school students.  They provide a solid and far deeper foundation than any state or district could have developed on its own, but are entirely open to enhancement at the local level.

As a result, here’s a sample of the response teachers are seeing in their classrooms:

Richard Kirby, sixth grade English and mathematics teacher at Alton Central School: 

It offers new challenges to students to become problem solvers, critical thinker and technologically literate,” he said. “It raises the bar for grade levels and individuals.

White Mountains Regional teacher:

Are the standards high?  Absolutely.  But have we scaffolded it so they can get here and have we had our expectations raised to meet that standard?  Yes.  And they’re doing it.

Mickey Johnson, ConVal:

I have been working with the CCSS in both math and English Language Arts for two full years. This is my third year. I am very comfortable with the CCSS and think they are a vast improvement on state standards we had before. There are fewer and they probe deeper….We have been in an inch deep mode for too long. The rigor provided by CCSS is good for kids and good for teachers because it allows for deeper, longer learning.

Jane Ellwood, 2nd grade, Northwest Elementary School, Manchester

The Common Core can be really an exciting thing to see in action in the classroom. You’re seeing 2nd graders who are learning how to persevere when they solve a problem. That’s not easy for them….But it’s amazing to watch it happen….The basic math skills we teach under the Common Core standards are not that dissimilar from what we did before. They are entirely grade appropriate….The difference is that there are fewer topics and we’re going much deeper into the knowledge.


The standards emphasize the skills students need in life – but not at the expense of content.

There is an increased emphasis in the new English standards on acquiring the skills to use content in making a persuasive argument. However, the standards require certain critical content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. The rest is left to local control.  The standards call for students to systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  The commitment to English grammar and literacy is still firmly in place.  There is no reduction in the commitment to facts.

In math, the standards make a new a new commitment to numerical fluency that will enable students to learn and apply more demanding math concepts and procedures. The multiplication tables are still there, as are the wide array of math facts.  The middle school and high school standards require students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues. They do this not by piling topic upon topic, but by demanding that students develop a depth of understanding and ability to apply mathematics to novel situations, as college students and employees regularly do.

Teachers and other educators wrote the standards

Since 2008, the New Hampshire Department of Education, our educators and their unions have been in the lead in development the new standards.  Dr. David Pook, highly respected Derryfield School and Granite State College teacher, helped write the English standards.  He told me he reviewed 10,000 comments from educators and others all over the country who participated in developing the English standards.

Here’s a list of the Standards Development Team, the Work Group and Feedback Group and the  Validation Committee.

The new standards are clearly superior to state standards in place before

Many credible analysts have compared the Common Core State Standards to previous state standards and those of the most successful education systems around the world.

Fordham Institute did an exhaustive and authoritative 2010 study comparing the Common Core Standards to those in place in each state at the time.  They found,

Based on our criteria, the Common Core standards are clearly superior to those currently in use in thirty-nine states in math and thirty-seven states in English.

For thirty-three states, the Common Core is superior in both math and reading.  However, three jurisdictions boast ELA standards that are clearly superior to the Common Core: California, the District of Columbia, and Indiana.

Another eleven states have ELA standards that are in the same league as the Common Core (or “too close to call”).

Eleven states plus the District of Columbia have math standards in the “too close to call” category, meaning that, overall, they are at least as clear and rigorous as the Common Core standards.

Fordham judged the Common Core standards substantially better than New Hampshire’s previous math and English standards.

Achieve participated in many international benchmarking projects comparing the Common Core to the standards of educational leaders and did a number of it’s own briefs comparing the standards to those in American states as well.  In all cases, the Common Core standards compared so well that even, California and Massachusetts, the states with the most highly regarded standards replaced them with the new Common Core standards.

And, of course, there is the rigorous and widely respected work of William Schmidt and Richard Houang comparing the Common Core math standards to the standards of the highest performing countries.

In addition, the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve published this extensively documented international benchmark study.

And the revered Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Directorate for Education, in its major international benchmarking report, Lessons from PISA for the United States, lists “Establishing ambitious, focused and coherent education standards that are shared across the [country]” as a key lesson for the U.S. to learn from education leaders, going on to say that the Common Core standards are needed for the U.S. to do that.

Challenges to the Common Core are political, not fundamentally educational

Any education strategy can and should be debated.  The Common Core was debated extensively during development and the standards should continue be debated and evolve.

However, the current debate is not about educational strategy – it’s a political debate.  If this were about the quality of the standards, we would be debating changes in the standards.  Instead, we are hearing, “There is too much non-fiction – toss the standards out.”  Or, “There is no 8th grade algebra – toss the standards out.”

The English Language Arts Standards

Here is a sample English Language Arts standard

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

You can see it here within the standards document.  It looks simple, but it’s a big step forward for teachers and students.  The potential for students is clear.

Read through parts of the standard.  See if there is anything there you do not want your child to learn.  Probably not.

The English Language Arts standards are working for New Hampshire teachers

Angela Manning, 5th grade teacher at New Franklin elementary school in Portsmouth:

It’s overwhelming, of course, because it’s a big shift” she said matter-of-factly.  ”It’s been interesting, though, to watch the kids step up to the level of deeper thinking that we’re asking them to do.  We’ve done persuasive writing in the past but this is the first time it’s been research based. 

Deborah Villiard, 4th grade teacher at Northwest Elementary, Manchester

Common Core standards don’t limit what I do in the classroom – they open doors….So I love it. It’s exciting, it’s rich. The kids love it, too, because they get to talk about it and explain their thinking, and it’s challenging….We used to read maybe 60 or 70% literature but…50% informational text is fine….You’re not going to be reading Mark Twain at work.  Anyway, am I going to take the time to measure?  Absolutely not!  I’m going to make sure my students can read and interpret both.

Fifty percent of English class must be informational text?  Look again.

Here’s the part of the standards that opponents like to refer to as the authority for their assertion that the standards require 50% of readings in English be informational texts.  Do you see that requirement there?  No.

There’s really only one critic who make this point.  Here is some background on the credibility of and backpedaling by this lone critic, Dr. Sandra Stotsky.  In contrast, here is a detailed and credible response by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, the co-authors of the English Language Arts standard, and a dispassionate analysis by The Hechinger Report.

Nonetheless, the standards do call for an increased emphasis on the kind of informational text students will be required to read and write in college and at work.  As Manchester fourth grade teacher Deborah Villiard says, “They’re not going to read Moby Dick at work.”  The the requirement applies to all reading, not to reading in English class only.

The new standards compare well to the well regarded California and Massachusetts standards.

Achieve compared the Common Core English Language Arts standards to those of California and Massachusetts, widely acknowledged to be the best pre-Common Core standards.  Achieve found:

The CCSS and the California and Massachusetts standards are similarly rigorous, and describe substantially similar bodies of knowledge.

The CCSS and the California and Massachusetts standards emphasize similar amounts of content in each grade level, but the CCSS are more coherent since they provide clearer and more precise progressions of learning across the
grades.

All three sets of standards focus clearly on the need for students to be able to read materials at an appropriate level of demand at every grade level.

While there are a number of similarities between the CCSS and the California and Massachusetts standards, there are several key differences that set the CCSS apart. The CCSS are clearer about the level of demand and provide extensive support materials. The CCSS also include literacy standards for grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects and pay greater attention to listening skills and to word choice.

The Math Standards

Here is what the math standards require in the early grades

Here is Jason Zimba, one of the authors of the math standards, talking about the standards themselves and how they were developed.  It’s interesting background.

In the early grades, the math standards are focussed on enabling the children to gain a form of “numeracy” by the fourth grade that is comparable to the literacy we want children to gain by the third grade.  A student who achieves fluency with the basic numeric operations by the 4th grade will be able to learn algebra and higher math when the time comes.

In the lower grades, the standards focus instruction on developing the following “non-negotiable” skills (with links to the standards’ introductory sections that give further explanation):

Kindergarten: Numbers

Know the 10 numbers well.  Count.  Work with numbers.  Understand the concepts of addition and subtraction.  Measure things.  Identify shapes.

First Grade: Addition.

Solve problems that involve adding and subtracting numbers up to 20.  Place value, including 10’s and 1’s.  Begin to measure length.  Reason about shapes.

Second Grade: Subtraction.

Build fluency with addition and subtraction up to 20.  Use standard units of measure.  Describe and analyze shapes.

Third Grade: Multiplication.

Build an understanding of multiplication and division within 100.  This includes knowing the multiplication (see the standard here): “By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.”

Develop an understanding of fractions with a numerator of 1.  Analyze 2 dimensional shapes.  Master multiplication tables.

Fourth Grade: Division.

Gain fluency in multi-digit multiplication and division.  Add and subtract fractions with like denominators.  Solve problems with all four operations.  Understand, measure and draw lines and angles and classify shapes  by line/angle properties.

Fifth Grade: Fractions.

The math standards are working well for New Hampshire teachers.

Jane Ellwood, 2nd grade, Northwest Elementary School, Manchester

The basic math skills we teach under the Common Core standards are not that dissimilar from what we did before. They are entirely grade appropriate….The difference is that there are fewer topics and we’re going much deeper into the knowledge.

That’s where it’s exciting – every student is learning something about addition and about problem solving and writing equations, but they’re doing it with the skills they have at that point. So you’re challenging students and they are challenging themselves.

It’s no longer, “How do you know the number 832 is even? – Because I know.’” No, you have to be able to tell me with an example or a drawing or something that really proves it.

It’s exciting to get 2nd graders together and have them work on a problem and teach them how to collaborate and communicate. It’s an important life skill…a lot of them don’t know how to solve a problem together. This new approach gives them more practice doing that.

They get that sense of, “Hey, I did it”…It’s a different kind of learning and they’re more engaged.

Robin Galeaz, 7th grade math teacher, McLaughlin middle school, Manchester

My classroom has taken on a new more active vibe and I am looking forward to seeing what my classroom looks like at the end of the year. There is a learning curve for everyone: I need to be more a facilitator and the students need to learn how to communicate their understanding. But I believe that these changes will make all of us stronger members of the classroom and education community.

Virtually all math specialists agree that the math standards are a big step forward

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.

But one mathematician does not.

Opposing all that, opponents cite retired Stanford mathematician Dr. James Milgram (here’s some background) saying that by 8th grade, the Common Core standards would have our students 2 years behind.  But he also 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.”

Actually, that last quote is consistent with the consensus in among teaching mathematicians, who consider the Common Core math standards a substantial step forward from the previous state standards while recognizing that our initial application of the standards will still be less rigorous than in the leading countries.  The developers’ judgment was that catching up to the best international standards was too big a jump to make in a single step.  We will have to take the next steps in the future.

What about teaching algebra in the 8th grade?  The standards provide for that as well.

Some have cited Dr. Milgram’s assertion that, under the new standards, students will not be prepared to take algebra by the 8th grade.  But when you really look, that is not true.

From the Achieve comparison of CCSS to California and Massachusetts math standards (acknowledged to be the best state standards but have switched to the Common Core)

Algebra is the gateway for high school mathematics and preparation for postsecondary education. California expects all students to take Algebra I in 8th grade, while Massachusetts does not….full coverage of Algebra I is treated in high school.

However, students who meet the standards at the end of 7th grade would be prepared for Algebra I. In fact, the CCSS’s approach to the early grades does a better job preparing students for algebra in 8th grade than either the California or Massachusetts standards.

Achieve goes on to say,

The CCSS are similarly rigorous to the California and Massachusetts standards. While all three describe similar content, the CCSS go beyond both sets of standards by identifying the level of content required of all students to graduate from high school college and career ready.

The CCSS are more coherent than the California and Massachusetts standards. The CCSS emphasize similar amounts of content in each grade level, but provide clearer and more precise progressions of learning across the grades.

While there are a number of similarities between the CCSS and the California and Massachusetts standards, there are several key differences in coherence and focus which set the CCSS apart as a better set of standards.

This national study is consistent with what we find locally in New Hampshire.  Rep. David Murotake, who sits on the Nashua school board, pursued this question in a recent board meeting.  Here is what he concludes:

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…. So am I misunderstanding something or is there possibly a confusion….

 After further clarification the teacher answers: “That is correct.”

Finally, the standards themselves describe in detail how to provide Algebra in the 8th grade:

…all students who are ready for rigorous high school mathematics in eighth grade should take such courses (Algebra I or Mathematics I), and that all middle schools should offer this opportunity to their students. To prepare students for high school mathematics in eighth grade, districts are encouraged to have a well-crafted sequence of compacted courses. The term “compacted” means to compress content, which requires a faster pace to complete, as opposed to skipping content. The Achieve Pathways Group has developed two compacted course sequences, one designed for districts using a traditional Algebra I – Geometry – Algebra II high school sequence, and the other for districts using an integrated sequence, which is commonly found internationally.

International benchmark studies reach the same conclusion

Achieve has also done a useful comparison of the Common Core standards to those of Singapore, a world leader in math education.  They conclude,

Overall, the CCSS are well aligned to Singapore’s Mathematics Syllabus. Policymakers can be assured that in adopting the CCSS, they will be setting learning expectations for students that are similar to those set by Singapore in terms of rigor, coherence and focus.

Dr. William Schmidt is a serious long-term academic researcher who, with his colleagues, has published exhaustive peer reviewed studies comparing U.S. math education results with those of leading education performers (here an extensive but readable example).  When he compared the Common Core math standards to the standards of the world’s leading education performers and found,

In comparison to the A+ [the best performing countries in math], the CCSS are world class standards.

The paper concludes:

What is clear to us at least is that the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics deserve to be seriously implemented. The consistency of them with the benchmark derived from standards of the top-achieving countries suggests that the goal of the authors’ that the CCSS be consistent with the internationally benchmarked standards and as a result are coherent, focused and rigorous has been achieved. One can quibble about some details, but the pattern is clear….

It seems to us that it is time to stop debating their quality and to move to assuring that they define content coverage at the classroom level – i.e., what is actually being taught and to all children. The evidence presented in this paper seems, at least to the authors, to offer a vision of what can be. To not move in that direction and to continue to debate the issue is a mistake our children call ill afford.

What about Trigonometry and Calculus?

The standards provide three years of high school math standards – Algebra I in either the 8th grade or the 9th and then two years of math after that. (The standards do not include the 12th grade.)  So schools have either one or two more years to provide more math.  That could include optional pre-calculus and or calculus courses.

American education is not at the point of requiring and testing all students in calculus.  Previous state standards seldom went far into Algebra II.  Most did not address trigonometry and calculus.  Even in Singapore, for instance, calculus is reserved for a limited set of students.  If calculus were part of the standards and tested on the assessment all students take, a very small proportion would be proficient.

The standards actually do call for a great deal of trigonometry – enough, really – integrated with all high school math courses.  There are trigonometric ratios in grade 8, trig functions in Algebra I, applications of trig in geometry, and trig functions and identities in Algebra II.

The writers of the math standards decided to stop at the end of 10th grade and to provide options beyond that.  The vast majority of American mathematicians agreed.  Less than five percent of the American workforce calculus in the work they do.  There is no point to requiring all students to study something that only a few will need.  But they might need statistics if they go into manufacturing.  Or trig for architecture, engineering and the building trades.  Software programmers might need fractals or Boolean algebra.  The options are there for them to study that stuff instead.

 


2 Comments

  1. J says:

    “It’s no longer, “How do you know the number 832 is even? – Because I know.’” No, you have to be able to tell me with an example or a drawing or something that really proves it.”–Jane Ellwood. This is an insightful statement. Did Jane Ellwood never model nor ask of her students before Common Core to explain themselves in mathematics or any other subject? Did the state standards not ask that of students? Good teachers have always modeled explanations and asked students to explain…when and where appropriate and in appropriate manners. http://pointeviven.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-common-core-shift-misunderstanding.html

    • Bill Duncan says:

      It’s interesting. Common Core opponents want to say, on the one hand, that the new Common Core standards aren’t good and, on the other, that any teacher who wasn’t teaching that way already isn’t a good teacher. Or, maybe, that if the previous state standards weren’t the same as the new ones, they should have been. Makes the head swim.

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