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Stay the Course: Supporting Success with the Common Core State Standards

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, July 9, 2013

The attention to more and better mathematics for students is not new. NCTM’s Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for Mathematics (1989) were held up as the exemplar for standards-based instruction by then Governor Roy Romer (Colo.) more than 20 years ago when the Goals 2000 panel met in Washington. We are currently on a journey that has the potential to make an unprecedented difference for students if we think purposefully about how to change practice and about the content that we teach. Teachers are only one part of the “we” necessary to realize the potential of the Common Core. “We” includes pre-K–16 educators, administrators, parents, state and national governmental agencies, legislators, policymakers, and the business community. It is imperative for us to work together if we are to secure successful mathematics opportunities for our children.

Educational standards should not be the victim of political rhetoric but rather an opportunity for all students to encounter the same high expectations and have the same opportunities. The recent undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the Common Core does not come from classroom teachers, who are doing their best to study and understand both the content and practice standards, but rather from those who know little about the standards and their potential to increase the likelihood for student success. The Common Core State Standards call national attention to what is important for students to know and be able do, not only to be career and college ready, but also to be quantitatively literate citizens—they, after all, are the ones who will make decisions that shape the future. Those who presume to know because they have a knowledge of education based on experience often limited to being a student—rather than as a professional educator— would much better serve our students and the educational system by supporting schools, teachers, and students rather than undermining their work.

The following are eight issues that we must consider to ensure the success of the Common Core State Standards. Although these are particularly germane to Common Core states, many of them also apply to states that have not adopted the Common Core, as well to mathematics education in Canada.

  1. Successful implementation will take time. We must not expect early assessment results to show the true impact of the standards on student achievement, because students will need time to internalize the new mathematical understandings. The Common Core is different from most previous mathematics state standards in its call for focus, coherence, clarity, and specificity. We have learned from high-performing countries that successful mathematics achievement involves a deep understanding of concepts that goes beyond memorizing procedures that do not make sense, and this shift will take time. A few years will not be enough time to measure success. One might argue that to truly measure the impact of these standards, we will need 12 years, so that students beginning in kindergarten have full experience with both the concepts and the practices. Teachers also will need time to fully understand the implications between their current curriculum and practice and those called for in the Common Core.
  2. Teachers will need high-quality professional development. The Common Core State Standards call for mathematics instruction that presents the subject in a way that is different from the way that most of us learned mathematics. All teachers from kindergarten to those who prepare future teachers will need to become experts in teaching mathematics in ways that call attention to connections and result in deeper understanding of mathematical ideas. 
  3. Teachers will need high-quality instructional materials aligned with the Common Core Standards. Because the Common Core supports change in content and in pedagogy, it will take more than minor tweaks for a textbook to be truly aligned with the standards. Teachers generally do not have the time or expertise to write instructional materials. Those who make decisions about textbooks at the district level must scrutinize all potential classroom materials to be certain that they actually adhere to appropriate mathematical content and that lessons are designed to help students develop the habits of mind called for in the Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice.
  4. Parents must be critical partners in the success of their children. The role of parents is not to teach their children, but rather to provide opportunities for students to see the importance of mathematics in daily life, to encourage success by setting aside time for children to complete homework, and to communicate with teachers about other ways to support their children’s mathematical education.
  5. District and state administrators must not only understand the mathematics content at each grade level, but also understand the type of instruction called for by the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Administrators in districts and states must realize that instruction called for by the Common Core will look different from what they may be accustomed to seeing. The typical mathematics classroom will focus more opportunities for students to solve significant problems together and less on drill-and-practice exercises. Robust new mathematics instruction will look different from traditional instruction. It is the responsibility of all district administrators to recognize effective mathematics instruction.
  6. All assessments—including formative and summative, local and national—must align with what we want students to know and be able to do. If technology is to be a part of the assessment, we must ensure that all students have access to that technology and that it supports the assessment instead of hindering it. If we are moving to assessing deeper understanding of mathematics, multiple choice tests will not suffice. Teachers need exemplars of high-quality assessment items as well as experience in scoring such items. 
  7. Teacher evaluation must be multifaceted. Evaluation based solely on student performance is shortsighted and does little to improve teacher or student success. Professional learning communities should be part of the instructional day. They should provide opportunities for grade-level or subject-area teachers to meet and discuss mathematics instruction, share ideas for improving student performance by examining student work, studying lessons, and reading professional articles or books together. Opportunities for professional growth and learning should be incorporated into teacher contracts. Teachers and administrators should have ongoing conversations about mathematics instruction that leads to student success.  Imbedding such experiences into the school culture has great potential to be an integral part of teacher growth and therefore student achievement. 
  8. We must continue to have high expectations for our students and for ourselves. The message of Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000) is as important today as it was 13 years ago! The Common Core Standards support this message.

The Common Core State Standards represent an unprecedented opportunity for mathematics education. The product of a historic effort, the Common Core Standards should not be another opportunity to reiterate irrelevant criticisms of mathematics education but rather should unify everyone behind the clear and powerful goal of supporting better mathematics education for all students.

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