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Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: An Uncommon Opportunity

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, April 4, 2013 

Since the release of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) nearly three years ago, I have thought long and hard about them. I have considered the standards from the viewpoint of state leaders helping districts to make the transition from previous standards to the Common Core. I have examined the standards closely by asking questions of the CCSSM authors. I have spent time in schools talking with teachers. I have worked at the district level with the elementary teachers and coaches who are preparing to implement the standards. The focus on effective mathematics instruction and efforts to improve it at all levels speak to the potential impact of the Common Core.

I support the Common Core State Standards. I support them for teachers, and I support them for students. I support them as someone who spent 28 years in the classroom and 12 years working with teachers to help improve mathematics instruction. I support them as someone who is passionate about giving students every opportunity to understand the mathematics that they are learning and to be successful!

Over the last 30 years, I have seen the vision of the NCTM Standards misinterpreted and reduced to checklists of skills to be taught. I have seen new, innovative, research-based curricular materials put away on a shelf because teachers had neither the time nor the professional development support to use them as intended. I have seen pushback from those who oppose the NCTM Standards and curricular change. In the meantime, we have continued to fail too many students, literally and figuratively.

I believe the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics have the potential to make a difference for students. They have already drawn widespread attention to the importance of mathematics education, and they present a historic opportunity. We should do everything we can to see that they succeed, positioning ourselves to realize their potential to prepare all students for higher learning and career readiness.

CCSSM includes grade-level content standards that represent a balance of conceptual understanding and skills. Based on the NCTM Process Standards, CCSSM’s Standards for Mathematical Practice describe the characteristics of mathematically proficient students, providing us with guidelines for effective instructional pedagogy. We have the opportunity to use technology to support students. We have the opportunity to collaborate to provide students with powerful learning experiences. We have the opportunity to ensure that students will deeply understand the mathematics they are learning. The coherence of the standards within a grade and the progressions from grade to grade make the connections among mathematical ideas explicit. Mathematics no longer needs to be experienced as a series of procedures and tricks by many students. And with fewer and more focused standards, we can finally move away from “covering” material to giving students ample time to reason and make sense of the mathematics they are learning. The introduction to CCSSM underscores the innovation and forward drive of the new standards:

These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. It is time for states to work together to build on lessons learned from two decades of standards based reforms. It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep. (CCSSM 2010, p. 5)

If we are to realize the potential of the Common Core, teachers and administrators must have access to high-quality professional development, including opportunities to deeply understand the Standards for Mathematical Content and the implications for instruction of the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Teachers need the support of administrators and parents to teach mathematics differently.  

If we are to realize the potential of the Common Core, states must work together to provide the support and materials needed for successful implementation of the standards. Districts within states must work together to share ideas and implementation plans. Teachers are not curriculum developers. It is not realistic to expect them to develop the instructional materials that they must have to teach mathematics well.

If we are to realize the potential of the Common Core, we must begin to think about assessment differently. We must assess students daily through the questions we ask and the tasks we present. We must use the information that we gather from listening to our students to decide our next instructional moves. We cannot wait for end-of-the-year high-stakes assessments to determine whether students have learned the mathematics. We cannot spend hours of valuable instructional time on formal assessments.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics are not a silver bullet. They are the result of more than 30 years of careful, thoughtful examination of what school mathematics should include if students are to be ready for college or for a career path that they may decide to follow. These standards have the potential to ensure a quantitatively literate citizenry. They are the next step in helping educators be smarter about how we offer all students opportunities to be successful in mathematics. They are a living document. We must learn from them, build on their strengths, and identify areas that need improvement. We must allow ourselves the time to understand, implement, learn from our mistakes (and we will make mistakes), discuss, share, and thoughtfully make revisions to improve our teaching. We must realize that implementation will be a process that will involve educators at all levels in working together to continue their evolution. We must remember that it is not about the standards. It is about using the standards to help our students succeed. If all stakeholders realize their potential and work together to support their implementation, the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics will help this and future generations of students succeed.

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