Practice Standard #3: Construct Viable Arguments and …

The June 9 New York Times has an op-ed piece called “Who’s Minding the Schools?” by political scientists Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.  It is put forth as a critique of the Common Core Standards, but in my view it uses the Common Core, rather clumsily, as a vehicle to express concerns (which I share) about ways in which K-12 education in the U.S. reflects and indeed reinforces social inequities.

Nowhere in the article do the authors actually identify the Common Core State Standards for what they are:  a set of learning expectations in Mathematics, and another set in English/Language Arts (Science standards are in development).  They begin instead this way:

IN April, some 1.2 million New York students took their first Common Core State Standards tests, which are supposed to assess their knowledge and thinking on topics such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and a single matrix equation in a vector variable.

Nothing like scary math words to make your readers nice and anxious.  There’s no mention of the fact that New York has chosen to give its own assessments (a word the authors put in quotes, for reasons I can only guess) rather than waiting for the development of Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests.  Later in the article, they mention Kentucky, which did the same, and note that “its students’ scores fell across the board by roughly a third in reading and math.”  But they fail to include this quote from their source article:

When new tests are introduced, states can expect scores to fall in most cases, said Douglas McRae, a retired assessment designer who helped build California’s testing system. “When you change the measure, change the tests, then you interrupt the continuity of trend data over time. That’s the fundamental thing that happens,” he said.

Nor did they include this fact about the Kentucky experience:

K-PREP does not represent the final, polished version of common-core assessments.

Fans of extensive high-stakes testing (I am not one) sometimes fail to recognize how complicated and imperfect the process of test development is.  Apparently so do Hacker and Dreifus.  It also takes time; developers have to collect data and then use it to make improvements.  Certainly state education officials could do a better job of explaining the process to teachers and parents, but Hacker and Dreifus missed an opportunity by not doing so in their article.  As I’ve written before, now that we have better learning standards, and seem to be stuck with high-stakes testing, we should expect tests that do a reasonably good job of measuring learning according to those standards.  But don’t blame the standards for the existence of the tests or the importance attached to their results.

The authors refer to the Common Core as a “radical curriculum,” but it is neither.  It doesn’t tell teachers how to meet the standards; if Diane Ravitch actually said that the CC will lead to “standardized scripts,” as they suggest, then she was wrong.  From the Introduction to the CC Mathematics Standards:

These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.  For example, just because topic A appears before Topic B in the standards for a given grade, it does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before Topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before topic A, or might choose to highlight connections by teaching topic A and topic B at the same time.  Or, a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B.

As for “radical,” we’ve had standards in mathematics, from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for more than twenty years, and the CCSSM can be seen as a logical next step.  The latter were designed on the principles of “focus, coherence, and rigor” — isn’t that what we’d want our own kids to get out of their math education?  So why not everyone’s kids?

The authors say that the Common Core was “introduced with hardly any public discussion.”  Here’s a sample of four press releases from the National Governor’s Association (others can be found here) that suggest otherwise:  “Common Core State Standards Development Work Group and Feedback Group Announced” (July 2009),  “Common Core State Standards Available for Comment” (Sept. 2009),  “Common Core State Standards Initiative Validation Committee Announced” (Sept. 2009), “Draft K-12 Common Core State Standards Available for Comment” (March 2010).  The article also refers to the Common Core as an “invisible empire” because the website lists no addresses or phone numbers.  Perhaps they missed the Resources page, with its links (for example) to the CCSSO and the NGA, along with the “Myths vs. Facts” link.

“(T)he Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges.”  Where is the evidence for this statement?  The Standards were developed with the goals of “college and career readiness.”  (I would prefer the inclusion of a third goal — readiness for informed participation in a democratic society — but as the above paragraph shows, I had my chance to chime in and I didn’t.)  Not readiness for selective colleges; just readiness for college.  As it stands now (see the link to Uri Treisman’s talk in my earlier post, “Addressing Equity” ), a large proportion of students in state and community colleges are placed in remedial math courses, often a dead end.  Do Hacker and Dreifus think this is acceptable, or just inevitable?

The latter, apparently:

More affluent students, as always, will have parental support. Private tutoring, already a growth industry, will become more important if passing scores on the Common Core are required for graduation. Despite worthy aims, the new standards may well deepen the nation’s social divide.

Are they talking about the Standards here, or about high-stakes testing?  Not. The. Same.  (The phrase “passing scores on the Common Core” is meaningless.)  As I see it, Vermont is taking a saner approach than New York or Kentucky.  Here teachers and schools are working hard to shift to the Common Core standards, and will be well on the way there (though at varying levels, to be sure) when the assessments from Smarter Balanced come along.  There will be some wrinkles, and I wish we paid teachers more to teach in the schools with larger low-income and ESL populations, and I have yet to see a measure of “school quality” that adequately accounts for variations in school populations, but none of that suggests that we should abandon better standards.  I truly believe that Vermont students of all sorts will benefit from the CCSSM adoption. Surely there are better ways to address a “social divide” than by holding all of our students back.

From Hacker and Dreifus:

For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

I agree wholeheartedly, though I am glad that doctors and scientists have long internship periods as well as professional guidelines with consequences for not following them.  I just don’t see what it has to do with the Common Core Standards.  The Common Core does not consist of “rules”; it is a statement of common learning goals.  The CCSSM document treats teachers as professionals, as the above quote from the Introduction suggests.

As political scientists, Hacker and Dreifus must understand the role of fear in motivating political action.  Indeed, in the only other paragraph (after the first) citing actual standards from the Common Core, they’ve chosen ideas likely to stoke anxiety:

Here’s one high school math standard: Represent addition, subtraction, multiplication, and conjugation of complex numbers geometrically on the complex plane; use properties of this representation for computation. Included on New York state’s suggested reading list for ninth graders are Doris Lessing, Albert Camus and Rainer Maria Rilke.

What they’ve left out is that the quoted math standard (N-CN.B.4) has a (+) symbol, as do all of the standards having to do with vectors and matrices (recall their opening paragraph).  From the Standards (page 57):

Additional mathematics that students should learn in order to take advanced courses such as calculus, advanced statistics, or discrete mathematics is indicated by (+)…

More significantly, perhaps, they’ve also left out the fact that the CCSSM clearly do include the possibility that some students will take more advanced courses, contradicting the “one-size-fits-all” claim of Anthony Carnevale, quoted in their piece.  Someone more familiar with the ELA standards can chime in on the difference, if any, between “New York State’s suggested reading list” and that of the CC standards, but the word “suggested” doesn’t say “one-size-fits-all” to me.

Beyond the anxiety, though, I would think that parents — and the rest of us — would want students to learn some things that we didn’t.  I wish I’d been introduced to Rilke earlier; my understanding is that he represents a shift to a modern sensibility in poetry, and hence just might be worth studying. I learned the algebra of complex numbers in high school, but it would have made more sense at that point if I’d seen the connection to the geometry as well.

The question of common learning standards across state boundaries is an interesting one, and I wish the authors had done more with it than offer knee-jerk responses from the Tea Party and a false claim about a lack of public discussion.  After a recent visit to a middle-school math classroom, I heard a teacher refer to a student as a “transient.”  Translation:  a child who bounces from home to home, and hence school to school, because his parents often have trouble paying the rent, or he moves among different households.  Such a child would benefit from some baseline consistency in learning expectations among different schools, as would children of active military personnel or migrant farm workers.

I really must spend some more time with the Common Core ELA Standards.  Here’s an “Anchor Standard” for writing:

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Hacker and Dreifus have fallen far short, sad to say.  They seem to have taken some legitimate concerns about public K-12 education in the United States today — standardized tests have some very high stakes that are not justified by evidence, teachers don’t get the respect they deserve, children of well-educated wealthy parents have huge advantages over their less fortunate peers — and decided that the best way to address those concerns is by raising doubts and fears about the Common Core Standards.  They’ve gathered a bunch of quotes from other people, using identifiers like “conservative” or “liberal” but not actually analyzing those quotes.  They’ve left out pertinent information, including some from the Common Core documents themselves, that might contradict some of their claims.  I do share the hope of their conclusion:

… there is likely to be much discussion about schools and what we want them to do. Ideally, this will involve a reconsideration of the contours of knowledge and the question of how we can become a better-educated nation.

Their own op-ed, however, does nothing to contribute to that reconsideration.

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About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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3 Responses to Practice Standard #3: Construct Viable Arguments and …

  1. Fantastic piece, Priscilla, I’m going to share it.

  2. Rob Root says:

    I’m with Bill on this! Hacker’s “Is Algebra Necessary?” last summer was a similar piece, with thoughtful points but a misunderstanding of the goals of math education. He points out that our current educational system is failing students, and that mathematics is a major stumbling block, tripping up students who might otherwise have more academic success. Clearly, the problem is that we are teaching students algebra. Really? Not the way we are preparing students for algebra? Not the cultural cues we impose on algebra? Not the deprivation of preparation and appreciation so many teachers have?

    Hacker has some good points, but he seems to lack perspective on the problem. Perhaps the most troubling part of the new article is the note at the end that he is writing a book on math education. Save us from this!

  3. Pingback: From Al Cuoco, commentary on Common Core | Patterns in Practice

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