It is just beginning to dawn on me how big an experiment the Common Core State Standards really is.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is huge.
Huge like No Child Left Behind was huge. Huge like charter schools and vouchers. Much bigger than Teach for America.
Allow me to elaborate.
I work part time for the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP). We are in the early phases of a revision in light of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS or Common Core). An important feature of the development of CMP has been extensive piloting and field-testing, as in the diagram below.
As we have been working on revisions of the materials, a major goal has been to use a light touch. We have tried to add content where necessary to meet CCSS without disrupting what we know from research and field testing is working well. Because this time we don’t have National Science Foundation funding for the kind of field-testing we did in the past, and we don’t have the time we did in previous versions because Common Core is coming very, very quickly (see, e.g., the timeline for the state of New York.)
And if we aren’t able to get the level of feedback that we did for previous versions, I can guarantee that no one else is either. The development of CMP (and, to an extent, the other NSF-funded curricula of the 1990’s and early 2000’s) has been unique in American math curriculum.
But a light touch won’t do it.
Not only do we have to add ratio to sixth grade (formerly in seventh), we have to solve equations there too. And we have to do volume and surface area of a rectangular prism there, but volumes and surface area of other prisms in seventh grade, where formerly they were all together in seventh grade.
And of course there’s more. Operations on fractions, one of the most carefully developed ideas in CMP? Those are done by fifth grade (not in the purview of CMP), with the exception of division of fractions, which is at sixth grade. And on and on…
The more we ask around, the more evidence we have that schools will adopt curriculum and will structure their students’ pathways through the curriculum based on the letter of the Common Core standards, not on the spirit. So if we write a unit that does all operations on fractions, only the part that does division will get taught (or supplementary material will be used instead, or the curriculum won’t get adopted).
And so in a very real sense (protestations to the contrary on the CCSS website notwithstanding), Common Core is developing a curriculum.
Recall the CMP development diagram above. Has Common Core been subjected to the same development process? Consider the following from the Common Core FAQs:
- Aligned with expectations for college and career success
- Clear, so that educators and parents know what they need to do to help students learn
- Consistent across all states, so that students are not taught to a lower standard just because of where they live
- Include both content and the application of knowledge through high-order skills
- Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards and standards of top-performing nations
- Realistic, for effective use in the classroom
- Informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society
- Evidence and research-based criteria have been set by states, through their national organizations CCSSO and the NGA Center.
Do you see where evidence and research fit in this scheme? Last. Not only are they last in the list, there isn’t even a claim that decisions about scope and sequence in the standards are based on research or evidence of any kind.
Why do we teach rectangular prisms at a different grade level from other prisms? Unclear. It’s certainly not based on research evidence of how students learn about volume and surface area. It’s unlikely even that it’s based on sound learning theory. And it’s certainly not based on meaningful mathematical connections.
So it’s an experiment. And 44 states have signed on.
I previously thought of the experiment as a benign one. I thought that for CMP it would mean a few tweaks around the edges, maybe some gentle and healthy nudges to increase the level of mathematics students are expected to do at sixth and seventh grade.
But I now understand that it’s pernicious. The standards are badly designed. They have nowhere near the research and field-testing base of existing curriculum. The impending assessment components of CCSS seem likely to dictate an even tighter quarterly adherence to curricular sequencing than the present annual testing that has had such a profound impact in the wake of NCLB.
And Connected Math gets derided as experimental; as the new new math?