Monday, April 14, 2014

The High School Common Core Math Sequence is Broken

There has been a great deal of criticism of the Common Core Standards in the past year, and the discussion is getting heated.  On one side we have accusations of a federal take-over of local educational systems and myriad examples of nonsensical homework assignments.  Some of the responses from the other side have been interesting.   First we have Arne Duncan accusing “white suburban moms” of fearing that their little darlings “aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”  Then there’s the piece by Jennifer Finney Boylan (“A Common Core for All of Us”) claiming that Common Core opposition is rooted in the fear that our children might not turn out to be carbon copies of ourselves.  Now most recently we have an editorial from Long Island Newsday that tells us our concerns about Common Core are really “the fear that the fundamental promises of American society are eroding, that the next generation will not be better off.”

At some point I need to poke around and see if anyone is writing about why Common Core proponents are trying to make their case by insulting millions of parents.  (Surely they realize they’re outnumbered.)  But for now, lets just say that parents don’t have their panties in a wad over some vague angst. They are upset over what they see happening to their children in the classroom.

When the Common Core Standards were first announced, I saw two promises that gave me reason to cheer:  First, there would be fewer topics taught in greater depth.  Second, school districts would have the option of eliminating the traditional algebra I, geometry, algebra II sequence in favor of a system where the algebra and  geometry topics are mixed and taught in an order that recognizes some things are better left until student’s brains have matured.  I have spent years watching the math curriculum (geometry in particular) get watered down until it was meaningless because we tried to teach too much too soon, and I was looking forward to adopting a model that had long been used in Europe and Canada.  I knew there would be bumps in the road on the way to implementation, but I thought that if we could all just hang in there, we would eventually end up with something really effective.

Then reports started to flood in from parents and teachers.  Children are miserable.  Teachers are exhausted. The failure rates on assessments are high.  Whom do we blame? It’s hard to say because what we are looking at is likely a mixture of the standards themselves, local implementation of the standards, and a culture of high stakes testing that pre-dates the standards.  And yes, a bit of resistance to change to season the stew.

Part of the problem is that the path from the standards to the day-to-day workings of an actual classroom has been very opaque.  Some of the blame that has been cast at the national Common Core Standards might be more accurately pointed at a more-local agency.  That doesn’t change the fact that something will have to change.  Brushing away the criticisms by libeling parents and teachers is not a valid or viable solution.


Next up:  A look at a particular course in a particular school district as an illustration of what may have gone wrong.

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