A really big experiment…really big

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?



8 responses to “A really big experiment…really big

  1. Scary, indeed. In complex dynamics systems, variation is often generative and beneficial for functioning and development. I think the common standards tend to stamp out variation in an awkward way, where it may actually stifle innovation and progress.

    I agree very strongly that schools need to take the common core in its spirit, not to its letter. It should be a tool for school systems to think about their curriculum, not a mandate or rubric for scoring or alignment. I think it’s also just naive to believe that everyone, everywhere should be learning the same things at the same space in the same sequence. It’s like we are herding cattle. Common standards, with there eye on “when” something should be taught, contributes to the herding framework.

  2. I am currently at a Common Core Coaches Network training. . . and it is so riveting that I am on facebook too.
    To add to this is the assessment piece of the Common Core. We are looking at 3 assessments from SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. CMP is the closest curriculum I’ve seen that will help kids be ready for this but it isn’t even enough. These new assessments with the large problems and the technology aspect are going to rock school’s worlds.
    Good luck Christopher on making this all perfect! 🙂

  3. Great post. I actually find the CCSS a bit difficult, but for a different reason: they’re often very nebulous, and sometimes I’m not sure exactly what they’re asking. From what I’ve seen–at least from the Virginia SOLs–state standards tend to be very straightforward and skills based: Students will convert from fraction to percent form or something like that. This makes it very easy to write & align content. CCSS, on the other hand, often “feel” a bit fuzzy and more “understand-y”, e.g. Interpret the equation y = mx + b as defining a linear function, whose graph is a straight line; give examples of functions that are not linear (8.F.3).

    Also, state standards are more discrete, where “slope” may be one standard while “y = mx + b” is another. (This isn’t good or bad. It’s just different, and adds another twist to the curriculum development process). The CCSS 8.EE.6 standard, though, includes much more: Use similar triangles to explain why the slope m is the same between any two distinct points on a non-vertical line in the coordinate plane; derive the equation y = mx for a line through the origin and the equation y = mx + b for a line intercepting the vertical axis at b.

    To be sure, I actually like the CCSS, especially insofar as they allow me (& Mathalicious) to at least get a foot in the door vis a vis schools and districts; there’s no way I could align all of my lessons to 50+ different sets of standards. Still, I can understand the frustration in Chris’ post. Indeed, I feel some of it too, albeit to a lesser degree, especially when I look at standards, scratch my head and wonder what it’s really asking.

  4. I agree with you….forcing kids to conform to a strict mathematical schedule is what got us into this mess in the first place. However, I’m actually really stoked about the Common Core Standards. Why? The New Mexico State Standards. At least the creators of Common Core had a system in mind. There are currently such a large number of disconnected standards in NM that it’s pretty near impossible to address all of them during a school year. Lots of teachers jut do whatever they want and then cite a standard that may be tangentially related, rather than developing a curriculum around the big ideas.

    I think we should be using Common Core as a guideline, but it’s more important to start students where they are, not what their grade is.

  5. Alexandra – “I think we should be using Common Core as a guideline, but it’s more important to start students where they are, not what their grade is.”

    Couldn’t say it any better

  6. We in Alaska had the good sense to not sign on!

  7. Pingback: TURD: Common Core graphic | Overthinking my teaching

  8. Pingback: Connected Mathematics posts | Overthinking my teaching

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