Most critiques of the Common Core don’t hold up to scrutiny. Dr. James Milgram’s critiques never do. His criticism of the math standards is the basis for most of the rest of the math criticism you hear, but is fundamentally dishonest.
Milgram uses a willful misreading of the Common Core standards to say that California’s pre-Common Core standards for kindergarten math were better. He claims that, in the Common Core standards, numbers are “nothing more than oral and reading vocabulary,” while the California standards pushed deep into the meaning of numbers. Actually, the two standards are very similar – both good at guiding teachers to engender a deep sense of the real meaning of numbers – but the Common Core standards are an important advance, as this great article describes.
And, since the California standards were actually so similar to the Common Core standards, Milgram manages to undercut claims that the Common Core math standards are not “developmentally appropriate” for kindergarteners – a claim definitively put to rest by New Hampshire kindergarten teachers here.
Common Core opponents frequently refer to James Milgram’s critique of the math standards to support their assertion that the standards are not rigorous enough – don’t prepare students for algebra in the 8th grade, etc. – even while complaining that the kindergarten math standards are too hard, “developmentally inappropriate.”
But the closer you look, the more confused this critique seems to be. Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute referred me to this paper by Milgram and Sandra Stotsky as the foundation for this kind of critique. Milgram, presumably, did the math sections and Stotsky the English sections. But there are several problems with the math critique here.
First, Milgram seems to have started with the desired conclusion – “The Common Core is all wrong” – and worked backwards to create the evidence. On page 4, he says,
California’s standards first focus on numbers as objects with special properties—they can be compared, they have magnitude, and they can be also be added and subtracted. But in Common Core’s standards, numbers are nothing more than oral and reading vocabulary in kindergarten.
Then, in the worst form of scholarship, he quotes selectively from the Common Core standards to make his point. He says, correctly, that the first three Common Core standards are:
1. Count to 100 by ones and by tens.
2. Count forward beginning from a given number within the known sequence (instead of having to begin at 1).
3. Write numbers from 0 to 20. Represent a number of objects with a written numeral 0-20 (with 0 representing a count of no objects).
Then, as you can see in the paper, he cites the California standards. But, actually, the Common Core standards go on to say this:
4. Understand the relationship between numbers and quantities; connect counting to cardinality.
5. Count to answer “how many?” questions about as many as 20 things arranged in a line, a rectangular array, or a circle, or as many as 10 things in a scattered configuration; given a number from 1–20, count out that many objects.
6. Identify whether the number of objects in one group is greater than, less than, or equal to the number of objects in another group, e.g., by using matching and counting strategies.
7. Compare two numbers between 1 and 10 presented as written numerals.
So, actually, the Common Core standards call for almost precisely the same approach to teaching numbers in kindergarten as California did in its widely respected standards. Here is a comparison of the early grade math standards that is much more balanced and useful than Dr. Milgram’s.
This example illustrates the fundamental dishonesty of Milgram’s approach to critiquing the Common Core. It gives advocates like the Pioneer Institute something to say when they travel the country railing against federalism, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Beyond that, however, Milgram unwittingly undercuts the charge Common Core opponents make the that standards are not “developmentally appropriate.” The only real difference between the California kindergarten math standards -widely regarded as “appropriate” and wise – and the Common Core is that the California standards had the kids counting to 30 (as New Hampshire and other states did) and now the goal is for students to count to 100, a goal that New Hampshire kindergarten teachers are finding entirely achievable.