Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The High School Common Core Math Sequence Is Broken, part II

This is a follow-up to the previous post, which you may be able to read by scrolling down.  If that doesn't work for you, check the blog archive in the right-hand column.

In the last post, I wrote about problems with the Common Core Standards.  I argued that trying to brush off criticism by saying that parents are responding to other fears – fear that my child isn’t smart enough, fear that my child won’t grow up to be like me, fear that my child’s standard of living won’t be as good as mine – fails to address very real issues in today’s classrooms.  Today let’s look at a specific example.

I am a professional tutor.  I work with some students in math, and I help others to prepare for college entrance exams.  Most of my students attend elite private schools in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.  I expected the second week of March to be very quiet.  I planned to do some extra housecleaning and some curriculum preparation for an upcoming evening class.  On Monday evening the phone rang. 

Could I help a student enrolled in a course titled “Common Core Math 2?”  Probably.  This is the first year that this course has been taught, and I wasn’t sure what was in it, but I’m familiar with most high school-level math, so I figured I could help.  Word got out, and I am currently working with a number of students all from the same class.

Common Core Math 2 is currently taught to students who, under the “old” system, would have been taking geometry.  If you will recall, I had been hopeful that certain geometry topics would be pushed to a later course, that there would be fewer topics overall, and that the topics included would be covered in greater depth.

Typically, when I get a new math student, my first question is, “Who is your teacher?”  Often that tells me all I need to know.  A handful of individuals have accounted for the bulk of my tutoring clientele.  However, the teacher this time is a veteran and a star.  She knows her stuff, both mathematical and pedagogical, so if there’s an issue, it probably doesn’t lie with her.  The reason for the sudden increase in business was apparent as soon as I looked at the homework packets.

This veteran teacher is incredibly well organized.  You can get online and see what students will be responsible for each day of the semester.  A few clicks, and the entire course was laid out before me.  I’ve never seen such a mess.  First, there are too many topics to be covered.  The list for the students to review for their midterm listed 47 topics.  FORTY-SEVEN.  Forty-seven topics had been covered in forty class periods. Some are topics that I would have voted to leave out altogether.  (Which is the incenter and which is the orthocenter?  I don’t remember from one day to the next and I teach this stuff!  Seriously, is there anyone who actually needs to know?)  Some are topics that have been pulled in from pre-calculus (Common Core 4 will replace this), and given the brain maturity required to understand them, should have been left there.  The topics don’t flow.  They don’t relate well to one another.  While I can see some of the basic principles that lessons are trying to address, it might be better to use different topics to address them.  In short, it is no wonder that students are floundering.

What went wrong?  The overall process has been remarkably opaque.  Stakeholders who should have been pulled in at certain levels of the process clearly weren’t, and it is difficult to figure out exactly what happened or where the whole thing broke down.  However, I have been paying attention to this story from the beginning.  I’ve done some poking around, and I have pieced together a story that seems plausible.  Here it is:

The setting:  For those of you who may not live here, the North Carolina educational system is fairly centralized.  Teachers are state employees and in addition to funding teacher salaries, the state gives local school systems money for busses and other expenses.  Local governments are responsible for building and maintaining school property, but the bulk of the money comes from the state.  In addition, the state jumped on the high stakes testing bandwagon before it became popular and has written and administered it’s own standardized exams since sometime in the 1980’s.  This effectively means that the state has been in charge of local curriculum for decades.

In 2009, when the Race for the Top grant was announced, we were in a recession and the state was broke.  The powers that be were scrambling for revenue sources that wouldn’t involve raising taxes, and the grant money looked awfully juicy.  Sure they had to agree to adopt some standards and then test to see if they were meeting them, but weren’t they pretty much doing that already?  Count us in!

We were awarded the grant in 2010. Now, keep in mind that the state was looking for money for everyday operating expenses.  So having spent the money on teacher’s salaries, there wasn’t much left for implementing the standards.  Best I can tell, the National Common Core Standards lump all of the high school math standards in “high school.”  It is up to the states to design the sequence of the high school curriculum. So the state wrote lists of what would be tested at the end of each year and pushed the work of curriculum design to the districts. 

Since the late 1980’s the state had developed a rich bank of curriculum resources that districts could use.  The scope and sequence of each course were spelled out with suggested pacing.  There were sample worksheets, examples of activities, and banks of test questions.  All of this was now obsolete.  In the summer of 2012 local districts were faced with having to design math courses based on lists from the state of what would be tested as early as January of 2013 (for block schedule high school courses.)  They didn’t have any money for curriculum design, either, so they dumped the work on the teachers who scrambled to write each piece in time to use it in the classroom.

As you can see, at every step there were ample opportunities for the process to break down.  Where can we pin the blame for this particular fiasco?  Again, because the process has been so opaque it’s hard to say.  I do believe that the teachers at the district level have done the best they can, given the mandate from the state and the time constraints.  I actually think the state Department of Instruction did the best it could, given the tight deadline and lack of money.  Where did the deadline come from?  Who said we had to have everything in place and the first tests administered by winter 2013? (And whose bone-headed idea was it to promise that we would adopt the standards without spending enough money on the task??) We don’t know.  Parents see “Common Core” in the title of the course and so it’s the Common Core Standards they rail against in letters to the editor and at school board meetings.

Regardless of whom is to blame, the situation is this:  The North Carolina Common Core high school math curriculum is broken.  The scope and sequence of the topics do not reflect what we know of how students learn or of when concepts should be introduced.  Topics and concepts in each course are so numerous, that it is impossible for concepts to be studied in depth, but they will be tested as if they were. 


Arne Duncan would have you believe that the resulting poor scores mean that our little darlings just aren’t as smart as we thought they were.  Ms. Boylan would have you believe that we aren’t really upset over our little darlings’ failure to learn anything in math class, but rather that our little darlings might learn something we didn’t, while some editors in Long Island think that we are really upset over the general state of the economy.  How insulting!  North Carolina parents can recognize a mess when we see one, and this is a mess.  We can’t be faulted for misplacing the blame when the mess was made behind closed doors.  The fact remains that someone needs to clean it up.

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