A Comment on the July 24 New York Times Opinion Page

  • A Comment on the July 24 New York Times Opinion Page

    By Matt Larson, NCTM President
    July 26, 2016

    In her opinion piece “The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students” in the July 24 New York Times, Diane Ravitch makes a number of critiques of current education policy, including the now defunct No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing, the impact of inequality in our society on education, and the Common Core State Standards.

    NCTM agrees with much of what Ravitch says. No Child Left Behind had several unintended and negative consequences, including a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on mostly low-level and disconnected skills. Instruction similarly was narrowed, and too often it overemphasized preparation for state tests. 

    NCTM has been critical of the misuse of large-scale assessments and just recently issued a position statement on Large-Scale Mathematics Assessments and High-Stakes Decisions. The position states that such assessments should never be used as the sole source of information to make decisions about schools, teachers, and students.

    Ravitch argues that what is labeled the “achievement gap” in our society is actually an “opportunity gap.” NCTM agrees and in 2012 adopted this language in its position statement Closing the Opportunity Gap in Mathematics Education. It is NCTM’s position that high-quality common standards are an effective mechanism by which to close one aspect of the opportunity gap by ensuring that every student at every grade level in the United States has the opportunity to learn mathematics at the same high expectation level. 

    NCTM acknowledges that the opportunity gap in mathematics education is about much more than simple access to standards. The opportunity gap is also about students’ experiences in the classroom, seeing students as coming to school with assets rather than deficits, the development of students’ mathematical identity and sense of agency, and teaching mathematics for social justice. In September I will be sharing more information in my President’s Message on these issues and related actions that NCTM is taking.

    While reasonable people may disagree about certain aspects of the Common Core State Standards, there is generally widespread agreement that at the K-8 level the Common Core standards are more focused, rigorous, and coherent than the majority of state standards that preceded them. NCTM is, however, concerned that the high school standards lack this similar coherence and focus. In 2013 NCTM argued that the Common Core State Standards must be dynamic and periodically updated.

    Ravitch states that the 2015 decline in NAEP scores is evidence that the Common Core standards are a failure. NCTM’s response is that we don’t know yet what the impact of the new standards is on student achievement. Simply put: one data point in time does not constitute a trend, and the NAEP assessment is designed to look at achievement trends over time—not year-to-year. And scholars have argued that any decline in the NAEP scores in 2015 might actually reflect a misalignment between the NAEP framework and the Common Core State Standards (see the American Institutes for Research Study of the Alignment of the 2015 NAEP Mathematics Items at Grades 4 and 8 to the Common Core State Standards [CCSS] for Mathematics) and not reflect any real decline in students’ mathematical ability or achievement.

    Americans have a long history of complaining about mathematics education. For 200 years, the pendulum has swung from one perspective to another on what and how students should learn mathematics. NCTM continues to support high-quality common standards and believes that the broad adoption of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics presents an unprecedented opportunity to improve mathematics education in the United States and to close the opportunity gaps created when the 50 states were implementing 50 different sets of standards.  

    The Common Core State Standards offer a foundation for a more focused and coherent mathematics curriculum that promotes conceptual understanding, problem solving, and procedural fluency. Unlike in the past, our society and educational policymakers need to exercise patience and resist overreacting to isolated data points. We need to see this through while simultaneously providing needed professional development and support for teachers, as well as the creation of a system to continuously improve the standards. NCTM is committed to working with stakeholders and teachers to ensure that over the long term the mathematics classroom experiences and the learning outcomes of each and every student in this country continuously improve.

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    Kevin LoPresto - 7/28/2016 3:31:51 PM
    IMO the roll out for the CCSS was very poor. Not enough training for teachers, not just in what the standards say but the philosophy behind them. Just providing textbooks and "pacing guides" does nothing to ensure that the standards are implementing properly. Add to that the seemingly lack of communication with parents about what the standards are about only furthered the dissonance. Teachers did the best they could with limited information. Parents reacted to their kids' struggles. Whose to blame? State governments for just throwing these standards out there, federal gov't who pushed these standards with out much support and then continued to publicly fight over them. They hold promise, we just have to come together and mold them the way we want them. School districts reach out to nearby universities, see if you can come together for prof develop and grants. Great way to help each other. I feel the pain of those "in the trenches." Keep fighting the good fight.

    Matthew Larson - 7/27/2016 7:40:06 AM
    Educational funding is primarily a state/local issue and unfortunately very uneven across our country. NCTM's original statement in support of the standards noted that proper professional development and funding were necessary to effective implementation. Matt Larson

    Julie Wright - 7/26/2016 6:23:45 PM
    I want to second Benjamin_39's question. I teach in a district of 49,000 students. We've had no district-wide or even school-wide math-related professional development since 2012-13 (and not a lot then), and our texts predate Common Core (for elementary school, by only a year or two, but our middle and high school curricula were adopted several years before I became a student teacher in 2008). Publisher supplements are supposed to make up the gap, but they are a complete joke. illustrativemathematics.org has saved my sanity, but it is not (yet) a basis for a coherent, year-round course. I don't even know whether to criticize my district for any of this. I don't envy the people who have to draw up budgets balancing all the needs. But it's certainly been a limitation.

    Benjamin Sinwell - 7/26/2016 1:58:58 PM
    As a classroom teacher, I teach in an environment that is shaped by the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes testing alligned to those standards. I continue to wonder why, as a nation, we do not provide our students, teachers and schools with textbooks, teacher training and/or other curricular resources alligned to the Common Core State Standards. What are we waiting for?