NCTM President Diane J. Briars
A little more than four years ago, on June 2, 2010, I was
sitting with a small group of mathematics educators in the Peachtree Ridge High School auditorium in Suwanee, Georgia,
on the occasion of the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Governors, state and district education leaders, business leaders, teacher
union leaders, and a number of classroom teachers all described their strong
support for CCSS and how having common, rigorous, world-class college- and
career-ready standards would benefit both their students and the nation.
Widespread adoption of CCSS was an unprecedented opportunity for systemic
improvement in mathematics education in the United States. It would foster
collaboration among adopting states and enable them to focus attention and
resources on improving teaching, learning, and assessment to increase student
achievement, instead of spending significant time, energy, effort, and dollars
on creating and arguing about their own state standards.
Fast-forward four years, and where are we? While some states
are moving forward, focusing on Common Core State Standards implementation,
others are again becoming embroiled in public debates about the standards, and
these debates threaten to squander the opportunity for systemic improvement
that CCSS provides. With respect to the Common Core State Standards for
Mathematics (CCSSM), what I find most troubling is that much of the rhetoric is
based on false or incomplete knowledge about the standards and their
development, or it confuses the standards with implementation activities,
issues, and policies, including testing policies. Such arguments have little
potential to improve mathematics education. Distinguishing CCSSM facts from fallacy
is essential both for implementing the standards effectively and for engaging
in thoughtful, reasoned critique of them for future refinements.
Two important features of CCSSM that are being ignored or
misrepresented are their research base and development process.
The Common Core
State Standards for Mathematics are based on evidence about how students learn
The foundation for CCSSM includes the series of National Research Council reports
summarizing research about mathematics education—for example, Adding It Up
(2001), How Students Learn: Mathematics
in the Classroom (2005), and Mathematics
Learning in Early Childhood (2009)—as well as the best
of previous state standards and a large body of evidence taken from
Research results incorporated into CCSSM include both general findings about
how students learn mathematics and specific information about how they learn
particular content. For example, in alignment with a well-established
general research result, CCSSM builds procedural fluency on a foundation of
conceptual understanding. Examples of research-based treatment of specific
content include CCSSM’s treatment of the meaning of operations, multi-digit
computation (moving from informal strategies to generalizable methods based on
place value and properties of operations to standard algorithms), and ratios
and proportional relationships (building understanding and solving proportions
as equivalent ratios). For topics lacking a strong research base, CCSSM progressions
draw on standards of individual states or high-performing countries. The series
of Progressions documents written by leading researchers in the field summarizes
the standards progressions for specific CCSS domains.
Many mathematics educators contributed
to the writing of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.
Although the Common Core State Standards were produced on an
ambitious timeline, large numbers of mathematics educators had opportunities to
participate in the process of developing CCSSM. In addition to the three lead
McCallum, Phil Daro, and Jason Zimba, a 51-member Work Team and a 19-person Feedback Group, including teachers, mathematics
education researchers, and mathematicians, participated in the development
process. The lead writers also commissioned essays on mathematics education
research that informed the writing of the standards.
The writing team received more than 10,000 comments through a
review process that included four drafts—three sent to partner states, plus a
public review draft. NCTM and other mathematics education organizations
provided feedback throughout the writing process, including on the four drafts.
As a member of two review teams, I can attest to the careful scrutiny that the
drafts received and to the impact that the reviews had on subsequent drafts.
Furthermore, project staff members were continually comparing the various
drafts with high-quality state and international standards. In short, the CCSS
development and review process was quite extensive, despite its relatively
short timeline. FAQs that address other common
CCSSM issues are available.
In addition to having accurate information about CCSSM, we
need to distinguish criticism of the implementation of the CCSS from criticism
of the standards themselves. Standards specify what students should learn. Decisions
about how that learning is to occur—including
those related to instructional materials, activities, lessons,
units, scope and sequence, course design, homework, or assessments—are
implementation issues. Almost all instructional resources now are advertised as
“Common Core aligned,” with the result that materials that are simply skill
worksheets may carry this label, even though the Common Core mathematics
standards emphasize conceptual understanding, problem solving, and reasoning
processes as well as skill fluency. Furthermore, incomplete understanding of
particular standards, such as those calling for students to use various
strategies to solve computation problems, may result in inappropriate
assignments—for example, homework requiring students to solve each problem by
using four different methods instead of one method of their own choosing or
devising. Use of inappropriate materials or assignments is not the fault of the
Common Core Standards but indicate the need for increased understanding of
CCSSM and of resources that can effectively support students’ learning of them.
It does not indicate that the standards themselves are flawed.
Particularly problematic is a tendency
to equate CCSSM with testing and with test-related activities and practices. In
response to accountability pressures to increase high-stakes test scores,
schools, districts, and even states have instituted a wide range of test-prep
activities, such as practice tests, frequent benchmark tests, and test practice
worksheets. Much of the criticism of CCSSM, especially from parents, is about
these test-prep practices and pressure on students to perform well. These
practices were prevalent well before CCSS and are not part of it. To the
contrary, the best preparation for the CCSS assessments, with their commitment
to assessing all the standards, including the Standards for Mathematical
Practice, is high-quality instruction—not test-question drill sheets.
Finally, despite the anti–Common Core
rhetoric, overall support for CCSS is still strong. For example, according to a
recent Gallup-Education Week poll,
two-thirds of district superintendents believe that CCSS will improve the
quality of education in their schools. Business Roundtable supports the
full adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards as a way to
build a more skilled, prepared workforce. And the United States Conference of
Mayors recently reaffirmed its support for CCSS. Even if a handful of states
replace CCSSM with their own standards, CCSS will still be the standards
adopted and in place in a majority of states.
The Common Core State Standards
represent too important an opportunity to squander because of rhetoric based on
incorrect and incomplete information and public confusion of the Common Core
State Standards themselves with shortcomings in their implementation. NCTM has developed
a three-pronged approach to support the CCSSM:
describe and publicize the practices, policies, programs, and actions required
for successful implementation of CCSSM through wide dissemination of Principles to Actions: Ensuring
Mathematical Success for All. NCTM cannot do this alone. Our Affiliates
and their members are important partners in this effort.
and expand our professional learning opportunities related to Principles to Actions and implementation
of CCSSM at our conferences and institutes and in our journals, and continue to
build our collection of relevant professional learning resources. This spring,
each NCTM committee developed specific plans for this work.
advocate for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, correcting
misconceptions, clarifying confusion, and highlighting ways in which CCSSM supports
students in learning more and better mathematics. Most
important, we need to help parents and the broader public become aware that the
conceptual understanding and habits of mind—for example, problem solving,
reasoning, and perseverance—that CCSSM calls for are essential for students’
preparation for their futures
third prong requires all of us, especially teachers and parents, to personalize
CCSSM by describing its benefits for their students and children. I strongly
urge you to get involved in the dialogue. Correct misconceptions. Separate
standards from implementation issues. And highlight the benefits and opportunities
that the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics afford to increase the
mathematics learning of all students.