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NEW YORK – Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Jason Zimba begins a math tutoring session for his two young daughters with the same ritual. His youngest, Claire, 4, draws on a worksheet while his oldest, Abigail, 7, pulls math problems written on strips of paper out of an old Kleenex box, decorated like a piggy bank with a pink snout on one end and a curly-cue tail on the other, and adds the numbers as fast as she can. If she gets the answer “lickety-split,” as her dad says, she can check them off. If she doesn’t, the problem goes back in the box, to try the following week.
Zimba began the Saturday lessons to make up for what he felt was subpar math instruction at Abigail’s public elementary school in Manhattan after it switched to the Common Core, a set of controversial new math and English standards adopted by most states in 2010. The standards have been in place in many districts for three years, but most textbooks, curriculum and teacher training have yet to catch up to the Common Core’s grand vision. The math standards, in particular, have caused outrage across the country as parents have grappled with confusing homework and garbled word problems labeled Common Core. Several states are currently reconsidering the standards in response to the growing backlash.
But Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent. He’s one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.
“I would be sleeping in if I weren’t frustrated,” Zimba says of his Saturday morning lessons, which he teaches in his pajamas. Instead, four years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, he spends his weekends trying to make up for the lackluster curriculum at his daughters’ school and his weekdays trying to make up for the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the Common Core.
Zimba and the other writers of the Common Core knew the transition would be tough, but they never imagined conflicts over bad homework would fuel political battles and threaten the very existence of their dream to remodel American education.
Related: Why is this Common Core math problem so hard? Supporters respond to quiz that went viral
When Zimba was first hired to help write a new set of K-12 math standards in 2009, the groups behind the Common Core — including representatives from 48 states — set very ambitious goals. The tough new academic guidelines would match the academic expectations for students held by higher-performing rivals like Singapore and South Korea. The standards would not only catapult American students ahead of other developed nations, but would also help close the gaping achievement gaps between low-income students in the U.S. and their wealthier counterparts. The Common Core would drive publishers and test makers to create better curriculum and better tests, and push school districts and teachers to stop settling for the mediocrity of the No Child Left Behind years and instead aim for excellence for their students. And the guidelines would arm every principal, teacher and parent with the knowledge of exactly what it takes to get into college and succeed.
The champions of the Common Core – including organizations like the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers – expected the task to be difficult. Overhauling textbooks would take a lot of time, and training teachers would take even more. But the political rage caught them by surprise.
The groundswell of opposition to the standards has been bipartisan: Both Tea Party conservatives and labor movement liberals have found reasons to hate them. Tea Partiers believe the standards are another example of federal government overreach, and some have dubbed them “Obamacore.” Progressive opponents of Common Core worry the standards are part of a movement to privatize education, underwritten by wealthy businessmen like Bill Gates. But their fears have a common root: a mistrust (and, supporters of Common Core say, a misunderstanding) of who wrote the standards and why.
“The creation of the standards is enshrouded in mystery for people,” Zimba says. “I wish people understood what a massive process it was, and how many people were involved. It was a lot of work.”
Much of that work may be in vain if Common Core’s supporters can’t convince the public that the standards weren’t a conspiracy by a few nefarious powerbrokers, but rather a sincere — and bipartisan — effort to raise expectations for American students. And yet, as much as supporters emphasize the democratic origin of the standards and count out the dozens of experts and teachers who were consulted, the Common Core math standards were ultimately crafted by three guys whose only goal was to improve the way mathematics is taught. That, some experts argue, is what makes the Common Core better, if more precarious, than the standards they’ve replaced.
“It was a design project, not a political project,” says Phil Daro, a former high school algebra teacher who was on the three-man writing team with Zimba and William McCallum, head of the math department at the University of Arizona. “It was not our job to do the politics while we were writing.”
Looking back now, many Common Core supporters say they wish they’d handled the politics better, but the backlash was perhaps inevitable. Despite fears that the standards are a federal dictate controlling what happens in American classrooms, the Common Core only contains broad guidelines about what students should know, not directions about how textbooks should be written or how teachers should teach. Publishers, school districts and teachers have mostly been left to their own devices to fill in the many blanks left by the standards, and to figure out how to meet the higher demands of Common Core.
“While it’s true that the standards are not the same thing as curriculum, in the end [standards] do have to drive the ability to write good curriculum,” says McCallum. “I don’t want to say it’s not our fault because no one knows how to write good curriculum. It’s certainly our problem.”
The Inner Circle
On the surface, Zimba, 45, seemed an odd choice for a major national project like Common Core. McCallum and Daro were obvious. Both were well known and admired in the world of math and education. McCallum is a prominent mathematician who has authored algebra and calculus textbooks and helped write Arizona’s K-12 math standards. In 2009, Daro was a senior fellow at a for-profit curriculum and teacher training company, America’s Choice. In the nineties, he was involved in developing California’s math standards.
In contrast, Zimba was an obscure physics professor at Bennington, an elite liberal arts college in Vermont. He wrote a quirky math and parenting blog with posts about complex physics problems, his kids, and the occasional political issue, including a 2011 post titled, “Numbers Don’t Lie (but Michele Bachmann Does).” He grew up as an outsider. Raised in a working class household in suburban Detroit, he was the first in his family to go to college. He chose Williams College in Massachusetts. Academically, the school was a good fit. Financially, it was more of a challenge. His friend, Eric Mabery, said the two got to know each other because they were the only poor people on campus. “He was the only person who had several jobs,” said Mabery, now a biologist at a San Francisco startup. “He was the only other person who couldn’t fly home. We had to take the bus.”
But from Williams, Zimba’s career took off. He was chosen for a Rhodes scholarship to England’s Oxford University in 1991. At Oxford, he made friends with a Yale student from Manhattan, David Coleman. Coleman went on to become a consultant for McKinsey, the global consulting firm, and though Zimba returned to do stints of factory work to help support his family in Detroit, eventually he headed to the prestigious math department at the University of California Berkeley for a PhD in mathematical physics. In 1999 reconnected with Coleman, who had an idea for starting an education business.
At first, they considered going into educational video games, but scrapped the idea in favor of an even bigger educational trend: standardized testing. The No Child Left Behind Act was still around the corner, but a growing education reform movement, which insisted holding schools more accountable for student test scores would increase performance, had already pushed many states to expand standardized testing.
Coleman and Zimba’s business, the Grow Network, found a niche in the burgeoning field of testing by producing reports that helped schools, teachers, parents and even students themselves interpret results from the new exams. “To design a successful assessment report, you need to be thoughtful about what the teacher really needs, what the student really needs,” Coleman says.
Thanks to Zimba, Coleman added, they were. Zimba had a genius for creating reports that were both mathematically precise but also humane if a student didn’t do well, Coleman says. Grow Network was hired by states like California and districts like New York City, and was eventually bought out by the educational publishing giant, McGraw-Hill, for an undisclosed price.
Zimba and Coleman went their separate ways. Coleman stayed on a bit longer with the company under McGraw-Hill. After a brief stint at a liberal arts college in Iowa, Zimba landed at Bennington, where Coleman’s mother was president. Zimba and Coleman stayed in touch, often discussing a problem that had bothered them during their years studying standardized tests.
“We looked at a lot of standards,” Zimba says. “Previous standards ranged from terrible to not good enough. The best of them were little more than test blue prints. They were not a blue print for learning math.”
Related: Common Core math experts say teachers need to stop using shortcuts and math ‘tricks’
Every state had its own standards, and state standards varied widely in their expectations for students. For instance, some states required students to memorize the times tables, but about a third of states didn’t, according to Zimba. But what most worried Coleman and Zimba — and many education experts — was the sheer number of standards in most states. The common critique was that most American grade-level guidelines were “a mile wide and an inch deep,” in stark contrast to the fewer but more intense expectations in high-achieving countries like Japan and Singapore.
In 2007, Coleman and Zimba wrote a paper for the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation with interests in education (and one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report). “We were just trying to think about what could really matter in education,” Coleman says. “What could actually help? One idea we thought is that standards could be really focused and better. At Grow we’d spent so much time with the endless vast and vague standards.”
The paper got the attention of several groups that had latched onto a similar idea, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, one of the original leaders in the Reagan-era standards movement. “It’s so unusual that ideas get you anywhere, that people find it very surprising,” says Coleman. But a couple of years later, when the two organizations joined forces to draft a set of “fewer, clearer, higher” standards, Coleman and Zimba were picked to help lead the effort.
A new organization Zimba and Coleman founded, Student Achievement Partners, was paid through a contract for the work. The CCSSO declined to disclose the amount of the contract or the total spent on the development of the Common Core, but said funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie and other foundations, as well as state membership dues from CCSSO and the NGA.
“We were looking for a skill set that was fairly unique,” says Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO. “We needed individuals that would know the mathematics — Jason and the other writers obviously know the mathematics — but would also be able to work with the states, and a bunch of teachers who would be involved.”
Writing the Common Core
In September 2009, Zimba started writing the Common Core math standards. Although his second daughter was due the same month, the standards were all-consuming. Zimba recalled getting a text in the delivery room from one of his co-writers telling him to stop responding to emails about the project: “It’s time to be a dad now.”
That fall, though, finishing the Common Core math standards came first. He was still on the faculty at Bennington, although on leave for part of the time, so the standards were mostly written at night, in “the barn,” an old garage on his property that he had transformed into a study. “It was hard on us as a family,” he says. “I gave an awful lot.” In October, his mother, who had worked most of her life as waitress, passed away. Zimba kept working.
“We’d be up to 3 in the morning,” says McCallum. “Jason would be up till 5 in the morning.”
They started with a blueprint that laid out what students should know by the end of high school that was written by Achieve, a nonprofit that advocates for better standards and tests, and by the testing groups College Board and ACT. Then they began consulting the research on math education – when it existed – and enlisting the ideas of experts in various fields of mathematics. During the course of the next year, they consulted with state officials, mathematicians, and teachers, including a group convened by American Federation of Teachers, a national union. Often feedback about a problem with one standard – such as when to teach students how to divide fractions – set off a cascade and they’d have to rework a whole sequence. Draft after draft was passed back and forth over email.
Related: Are math specialists the answer to teaching better math?
The final drafts of the standards were released to the public in June 2010. By the following year, thanks in part to financial incentives dangled by the Obama administration, more than 40 states had adopted them, and schools and teachers scrambled to throw out their old lessons and adapt to the more rigorous expectations. Zimba quit his job at Bennington to work full time at Student Achievement Partners to promote the standards.
The upheaval the standards would cause in American classrooms stayed mostly under the radar, however, until 2013. The backlash began to grow that year in states like New York, where new Common Core tests had sent scores plummeting, and Indiana, where conservatives were leery of the Obama administration’s support of the standards. It hit the mainstream in early 2014, when a dad in North Carolina posted a convoluted “Common Core” question from his son’s second-grade math quiz on Facebook, along with a letter he’d written to the teacher. “I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronics Engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other high-math applications,” he wrote. “Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.”
Glenn Beck and other conservative pundits picked up the post, and it went viral. A couple of months later, the comedian Louis C.K. complained about his daughter’s Common Core math homework on Twitter, and late night comedians like Stephen Colbert began mocking the standards, too. Critics called the standards convoluted, too abstract and too conceptual because of the focus on getting students to explain and discuss their answers.
By the summer of 2014, Indiana and Oklahoma had pulled out of the Common Core, other states had passed legislation to replace the standards in the coming years, and still others are threatening to do the same this year. Supporters of the standards, including teachers unions and the Gates Foundation, are now trying to salvage Common Core by calling on states to hold off on the stakes associated with new Common Core tests, including new teacher evaluations in many states based on student scores.
The backlash has both annoyed and baffled the writers. “When I see some of those problems posted on Facebook, I think I would have been mad, too,” McCallum says. Daro tells a story about his grandson, who brought home a math worksheet labeled “Common Core,” with a copyright date of 1999.
They argue there’s actually very little fuzziness to the math in the Common Core. Students have to memorize their times tables by third grade and be able to do the kind of meat-and-potatoes problems Zimba asks of his daughter during their Saturday tutoring sessions, requirements he believes the so-called Common Core curriculum at her school essentially ignored.
Hung-Hsi Wu, a mathematics professor at Berkeley and one of the expert advisors in the Common Core process, blames the Common Core’s problems on bad – and ubiquitous – textbooks that the publishing industry is reluctant to change. “Publishers don’t want to bother with writing anything because they’ve gone through too many sets of standards,” he says.
Zimba is more diplomatic. “It takes a long time to revise math materials,” he says. “Some people pushed out half-baked stuff and some people stuck a sticker on it and called it Common Core, and what else could they do? It takes time.”
For anyone who isn’t a mathematician, it can be difficult to tell what’s genuinely aligned to the Common Core and what isn’t. Zimba believes, however, that many of the pundits fueling the anger against the Core are willfully misunderstanding the standards and misleading the public. “I don’t feel like this is about the Common Core,” he says. “I think this is how it is in America.”
To triumph or die
Despite his frustrations, Zimba doesn’t regret the sacrifices he’s made for the Common Core. Zimba gave up an academic career in which he had the freedom to wonder about abstract physics problems in the peace and quiet of his Vermont barn and to solve complex puzzles for the sheer pleasure of it. But, he says, “I’m now participating in a much more urgent problem.”
That problem is how to elevate the academic achievement of the most disadvantaged students in the U.S. and the achievement of American students in general, so the country can maintain its competitive advantage in the global economy. These days, Zimba and his colleagues acknowledge better standards aren’t enough.
“I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough,” he says. “In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test.”
Now, he says, “I think it’s curriculum.”
For American public schooling to transform as the Common Core writers believe it should, curriculum and textbooks have to change, and so does the way teachers teach. And that is the irony of the debate over the standards, and what may be their undoing. As powerful and influential in reshaping American classrooms as the standards could be, they don’t include lesson plans, or teaching methods, or alternative strategies for when students don’t get it.
Even as Zimba and his colleagues defend the standards against cries of federal overreach, they are helpless when it comes to making sure textbook publishers, test makers, superintendents, principals and teachers interpret the standards in ways that will actually improve American public education, not make it worse. Like McCallum, Zimba agrees with the North Carolina dad that the question on his son’s Common Core-labeled math quiz was terrible. But, as long as Americans hold to the conviction that most of what happens in schools should be kept under the control of states and local communities, the quality of the curriculum is out of his hands. “Like it or not, the standards allow a lot of freedom,” he said.
This year, Zimba convinced his daughter’s school to try out a new curriculum that’s better aligned to the standards he wrote. He is also devoting his time at his nonprofit, Student Achievement Partners, to create checklists other schools can use to find good textbooks that match the Common Core. The group has published training materials, including videos in which teachers demonstrate Common Core lessons. On a recent rainy afternoon in Manhattan, the organization gathered in a conference room to hash out ideas for an online tool, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust (among the many funders of The Hechinger Report), that could help teachers better understand the standards.
Related: What makes a good Common Core math question?
One idea for this tool was a “swipe-y” app that teachers could use to figure out whether students grasped a standard or not – something that would function much like Tinder, the matchmaking site. In the end, the group was most enthusiastic about a more low-tech, but probably less manageable, option: a hotline that teachers and parents could call to find out if the Common Core-labeled math problems they found in their textbooks and homework were good or bad.
Daro and McCallum are leading their own efforts. McCallum founded a nonprofit called Illustrative Mathematics that produces sample tasks linked to the Common Core, trains teachers and produces curriculum blueprints. And Daro is actually writing an entire Common Core math curriculum for use on tablets, to be put out next year by educational publisher Pearson..
But it’s unclear if their efforts, and similar ones by like-minded nonprofits and funders like the Gates Foundation, will trickle down to the millions of classroom teachers attempting to adapt to the new standards. Or if the bad curricula still circulating coupled with the nation’s fractured politics will do them in.
For his part, Zimba is optimistic. “The influence of the tests on the curriculum, it’s negative,” he says. “They’ve been a pale imitation of mathematics. I’ve talked to teachers who say teaching these standards, I feel like a teacher again. That’s not going to be easy to take way. Once you taste that, that’s powerful.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.
This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the fact that Phil Daro was involved in developing previous versions of California’s math standards, not the latest standards that were replaced by Common Core.
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The Hechinger Report is not “independent” at all. It is published through the Teachers College at Columbia University. It relies on support from foundations and individual donors (https://hechingerreport.org/about/). Just look at all the grants from Bill Gates:
Two of the 3 guys responsible for Common Core Math standards have never taught. What wrong with this picture?
As a teacher with many years of experience, I can assure you that the amount of material that I teach in algebra in New York State increased significantly once Common Core was adopted. Part of the problem is the necessity of teaching material that should be mastered at an earlier level but has not been. Expecting that students will be ready for the expectations of the Algebra standards when they have only been exposed to the eighth grade standards is not realistic. In addition, my poor rural school district cannot afford to send me to professional development to strengthen my understanding of the standards as a whole or to expose me to new instructional methods. We are busy saving our money to purchase iPads so our students can take standardized tests online.
There’s nothing wrong with that picture. These are STANDARDS, not CURRICULUM. It’s a guideline for the goals that teachers are suppose to reach, not a guide on reaching those goals.
All the common core states is where our education level need to be in order stay competitive globally. It isn’t a specific set of instructions on how to reach that level. Teachers still write the lesson plans, common core is just a list on the items that need to be on that lesson plan.
I think it’s important to distinguish between the standards and the curriculum that is intended to deliver the standards. This article does that. To simplify it, the standards specify at what grade level a skill is expected to be mastered, not the process by which the skill is taught. Publishers and textbook writers determine how skills are taught.
One of my concerns is with the adoption of the standards. They were adopted by states which then required they be implemented in grades K-12 at one time. Moving from the old standards to CCSS created gaps for all students rather than closing gaps for specific students. Students are expected to have skills that they were not taught because traditionally they had been taught in a different grade. It would make more sense to implement a new set of standards and a new curriculum in kindergarten and take a from the ground up approach. No one builds an entire house at once. It starts with some sort of foundation and everything builds on that foundation.
I am a grandmother now. My six-year-old granddaughter, in first grade, is already learning her multiplication tables, can add and subtract, and is reading like a champ. We as a family are education-oriented, teaching our children and grandchildren at home, in the car, on road trips, at restaurants, etc. Teaching at home is how many young ones excel, but good curriculum and a teacher able to vary explanations and methods are godsends. I believe in the basics. Design curriculums to relate to what people USE in their lives.
Was natural stages in human development considered at all in the development of Common Core standards. 6-7 year olds are not yet able to abstract and yet they are expected to “learn” strategies using math properties/place value on a conceptual level? To me that seems like pushing a 9 month old baby to walk when, if you only wait until they are ready it happens naturally and without constant “teaching”. Let’s use educational standards that align with development!
Nothing wrong with it – hardly any teachers would claim to be expert enough in the subject to define what students should know & be able to do in mathematics. The standards don’t specify how to teach – that’s the teachers’ job. The standards were vetted by many teachers during their process of creation.
“It was a design project, not a political project,” says Phil Daro, a former high school algebra teacher who was on the three-man writing team with Zimba and William McCallum, head of the math department at the University of Arizona.
Bob, you may have missed this sentence in the article, but it appears they all have teaching experience. It is important to remember that there was also a large number of educational professionals who consulted on this project.
It appears that fear of hard work and political partisanship are driving the calls for repeal of the Common Core. That is a sad state of affairs. Business leaders, post-secondary educators and our military leaders keep telling us they are not getting the caliber of applicant that they need to do the job, complete the class and achieve the mission. We need to improve to stay competitive or we need to become satisfied with being mediocre in all aspects of the global and US society. Stop listening to pundits and start doing some research. If everything the politicians and talking heads are saying is true, we will be able to find it and prove it. In this case, they are dead wrong and we need to be smart enough to stop letting them speak on our behalf!
What ever you do,change the text books,train the teachers,nothing can change age factor.Students as young as 15,have no life experience they study in schools,will need some time(age) to fully understand those concepts.
Let me get this right . . .three MEN . . . a professor, a for-profit businessman, and a physicist wrote math common core? All were involved at some level to make money eventually. What could go wrong?
Now this guy is surprised that his child is having difficulty with the crap . . . and to be clear it is crap . . . he invented?
Someone tell these clueless idiots . . . and to be clear. . . they are stupid . . . that knowing math taught at some ivy league college and teaching math in a public school are skills from a separate planet.
God protect us from this white privilege and intrusion by men who “know everything”.
All attended affluent universities, and have the “right” connections. One was hired at a university where his friend’s mother was president. Crying about being one of the few students who had to work does not make you poor like the millions of students attending public K-12 schools. Having a few teachers on as advisors does not constitute teacher-driven. These three guys went into this as a business venture, and have made money doing so. That’s where business models and education models differ. Businesses only exist to make money, and if they fail later on after pocketing millions, they close shop and take their profits with them. Educators are in it for the long-haul, we cannot just dump unprepared 5-year old kids on the street and take our profits elsewhere.
“Never taught” is not true, but the bigger concern is why we continue to focus on “who” instead of what and ridiculous math worksheets instead of what the standards really say. As a math teacher, I see huge potential with the Common Core math progressions. Who I am, though, is not important. Americans need to compare this picture of traditional instruction: http://tinyurl.com/fract222 with Units1&2 five-minute videos here: https://www.illustrativemathematics.org/fractions_progression
As we think about how few of our students are able to take on college level math courses, I believe it is easy to see why based on this comparison.
Bob, where do you get that from? From the article:
Phil Daro, a former high school algebra teacher…
William McCallum, head of the math department at the University of Arizona
McCallum and Daro were obvious. Both were well known and admired in the world of math and education.
Zimba was an obscure physics professor at Bennington, an elite liberal arts college in Vermont.
All three of them have taught.
After teaching elementary-aged students for 11 years in the public schools, I took a “14 year maternity leave” to home educate my own two children before returning to the public school system two years ago as a charter school teacher. Through my journey into alternatives to public neighborhood school mediocrity, I have seen and experienced very VERY different educational settings, curricula, and teaching methods. Honestly, I appreciate the new standards. They are achievable. From my own boots on the ground and in the trenches observations, however, determining that curriculum is the problem is a very simplistic conclusion. There are myriad problems including class size, “dump and dash” attitudes of parents, hungry children, and factory-sized schools. As a home school parent and tutor, I have seen children flourish with parent care and involvement. We need to stop blaming the schools and the teachers and take a GOOD, hard, honest look at the working conditions, class sizes, and accountability of children and families who are entering into our schools. My take away from equal time spent as a public educator and as a private, home educator includes the fact that our schools are both free and compulsory, and those two descriptors breed entitlement, blame, and mediocrity.
The best part was the “surprise”. Really?
Education is extremely political. But then a real expert would know that, right?
Why would we follow anyone anywhere about math or anything else? He confesses he knows nothing and then whines because we all hate his product.
I can tell you and him – child development, cognition, and brain development were not considered.
Something as simple as – conservation at the elementary level were not considered in the development of any common core standard – math included.
I should frame this piece of work. As an example of the stupidity that reigns over public education.
I can do physics so do what I say or I will cry?
You’ll also notice that no early childhood specialists were involved to determine whether the math standards for primary grades were developmentally appropriate.
I admit to feeling for Mr. Zimba as it would seem his efforts were genuine and outside of the current for-profit corporate playbook. That said, the biggest blunder of the CCSS was the intentional dis-invitation of our public school teachers to the process. After the decade-long damage inflicted upon schools and teachers under NCLB, one would think the “experts” cobbled together to write the CCSS would have removed their collective feet from the neck of every classroom teacher in American public schools, but that did not happen. They were snubbed, demonized yet again, even by Obama/Duncan, aided closely by the media. As mentioned, you may come across a few classroom teachers here and there that are gushing over the new standards, but the clear majority of teachers in this country view them negatively and are resentful of how they came to be, without their input. Top down management and mandates are a very poor formula success in the teaching profession, let alone most others. CCSS has many other challenges to face, but this mistake may be the final nail in its coffin.
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We welcome questions from the public about how we do our work, and strive to be transparent to our audience. Our current journalism examining the Common Core, one of the most important stories in American education at the moment, is funded in part by the Helmsley Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not currently one of our funders, but has been in the past.
–Lillian Mongeau, Engagement Editor and Sarah Garner, Executive Editor
Jason Zimba sounds well-intentioned but naive. The common core standards seem to be based on the discipline and logic of math without any awareness of years of research into how young children learn and how they develop. The most striking example is the way common core math in K-4 starts with abstract concepts before using concrete experiences or even actual numbers. From Piaget to more current cognitive psychologists, we find out that concepts and abstractions need to be based on something. Moreover, most children don’ t develop formal operations (abstractions) until about age 12. Experienced teachers also know that children often learn by rote and later learn the concepts that underly rote routines. E.g., they count from 1 – 10 before they understand comparison of quantities. They play with nesting pots and pans before they can verbalize that ten is twice as much as five. Likewise, they learn the alphabet before they learn the letter-to sound correspondences of reading and writing. In other words, the authors of the common core standards ignored years of research and experience that would have illuminated how children learn. Following the discipline and logic of a subject is not always the appropriate way to teach it. Common core math is arduous and oppressive because after children have solved a problem, they are expected to explain the process at an abstract level beyond their developmental abilities. They are not given the opportunity to experience the joy and symmetry of manipulating quantities before they have to explain the process logically. Jason Zimba may be a brilliant physicist/mathematician, but he obviously knows very little about how children learn.
I appreciate the editor’s comment. As a former newspaper journalist (who saw the writing on the wall), and now a 4th-grade teacher, I have been appalled at the lack of reporting in depth — until this story that came to me via SmartBrief — on how the standards were developed, the origins. I could read ad nauseum about David Coleman’s background, but couldn’t figure out who crowned him king. And I read a lot trying to figure it out. Perhaps the dearth of coverage reflects the current media belt-tightening, where the arrest of Screech from TV’s “Saved By the Bell” merits a tease for the evening news cuz they ain’t got nuthin’ else. So thanks for this story which I’ll now share on FB, and please keep covering the history and developments with Common Core.
As a high school mathematics teacher ( geometry, Algebra 2, Calculus), I love the Common Core. Is it perfect, no. Are my students understanding mathematics more deeply, yes.
“Zimba convinced his daughter’s school to try out a new curriculum that’s better aligned to the standards he wrote.” What curriculum did Mr. Zimba recommend?
I am sorry. This story is made up. I have 4 children currently trying to deal with Common Core. I live in Florida. Most of the parents here consider the common core as “dumming down” our children. I was blessed that my children have high IQ’s and that my school district had schools that were specifically for gifted children. The children in these programs would have all advanced programs starting in Kindergarten. When Common Core went into effect, they stopped the advanced programs, specifically math, reading and science. The way the program was set up was that by the time the child finished middle school, they would be starting their math in 9th grade with Geometry and you would be in your second year of high school english and science. Now your student will be starting high school with Algebra. All the advanced students are having trouble with common core due to the fact that it is too basic for them. So tell me, how is common core suppose to bring up the standards of learning, when it is holding our children back from learning?
Zimba said CC math will not prepare students for STEM or selective colleges.
McCallum said CC standards are not very high, especially when compared to high achieving countries.
Daro said the reason we have standards is because of Social Justice.
CC math standards feed into the reform math ideology which has been going on for the past 2 decades. Not a surprise that they are being intepreted the way they are. Also, Phil Daro has been a big part of this movement, as has Doug Clements, also part of the CC effort but not mentioned in the article. Sybilla Beckmann, another writer of the math standards is a U of GA math professor, also supportive of the math reform movement.
CC standards could be interpreted differently but given the way they are put together with words like “explain” and “understand” (which Tom Loveless of Brookings refers to as “dog whistles” for the math reform crowd), it is not surprise that they are interpreted the way they have been. The alternative interpretations are not obvious at all.
I believe the common core is a step in the right direction. Our politicians, school leaders, teachers, and parents realized there was a need for change. The Math and ELA common core standards are BROAD which presents challenges for all schools. Though it does allow for professional autonomy within disciplines teachers are lacking proper resources to collaborate and develop effective curriculum. The anxiety and discontent which politicians and the media share regarding the Common Core are a direct result of the mandated standardized tests (PARCC) which will take up valuable hours of classroom instruction time. It is also true that education is an EASY target for power hungry politicians and media outlets who want attention and ratings. Many teachers, (the people responsible for implementing Common Core and educating students) feel unprepared in preparing their students for the standardized tests due to a number of factors like lack of educational resources, professional development, and many other issues. Data from the exams will be collected and published determining whether the teacher/district were succesful causing more stress, fear, backlash, etc. Students are not products and teachers cannot choose the ingredients and materials they receive in the beginning of the school year. Under the current guidelines, teachers have 6-8 months to prepare their students for a test which will impact the livelihoods of both teachers and students.
In conclusion, the common core guidelines are a step in the right direction. Teachers should have a list of goals/standards to strive for developed by experts. However, in order to see results it will take time, collaboration, professional development, resources, and patience.
Transcript from a meeting of the Massachussets Board of Education with an interview of Jason Zimba:
Zimba: The definition of college readiness, I think, it’s a fair critique that it’s a minimal definition of college readiness.
Massachusetts Board of Education Questioner: For some colleges.
Zimba: Well, for, for the colleges most kids go to, but not that most parents probably aspire, right…
Questioner: It’s not for STEM. It’s not for international competitiveness. [The last two words are overlapped with Zimba’s reply and he probably didn’t hear.]
Zimba: That’s true; it’s not. It’s not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges. That, for example, UC Berkeley, whether you’re gonna be an engineer or not, you’d better have pre-calc to get up …
In other words:
1) CCSS do not prepare students for STEM careers.
2) CCSS do not prepare students for anything more than non-selective community colleges.
3) CCSS does not even get to the pre-calc stage, much less calculus in high school.
4) Jason Zimba knows enough about the standards to know he needs to home tutor HIS kids to make sure that they are not stuck with only learning at the CC pace.
Not said in the article is that many districts (Santa Monica, CA for example) are jettisoning all advanced-track math. Common Core says algebra is for 9th grade and calculus is for college, so schools are shutting down the calculus track.
You can bet Zimba’s kids won’t be going to those schools.
“…Zimba convinced his daughter’s school to try out a new curriculum that’s better aligned to the standards he wrote.” What new curriculum did Mr. Zimba recommend?
I teach common core math and English at the middle school level in New York. I am a special education teacher. Next week I will be starting “To Kill a Mocking Bird” in 8th grade. I will be supporting the classroom teacher in my classroom. Many of my students are reading at a 4th grade reading level at best… Good book – but way over their heads – SMH. Math is actually a little more manageable and to my surprise the students with disabilities are doing okay – except on the state tests – those three April Days where it all is calculated – not the real world!
I teach in a small rural school district and am responsible for math grades 5-8. What I am concerned about are the SPED students who have an identified disability in math and are being mainstreamed so they “see the curriculum at their grade level”!! These students are 2-3 grade levels below and can not possible be successful even with support. The standards are watered down for them, they have modifications and support through out their assessments. They are not learning everyday skills they will need in the future! What are other districts doing with these students?
I live in Maine, but shouldn’t these students’ IEP override them learning the standards for their “grade” level, and require them to meet them at their own functioning level?
One big thing that needs to occur that will greatly benefit education in this country is determining the way in which the individual student best learns. I’m sure there is further research than this, but I can at least identify two spectrums of learning styles that would lead to four types of learners. Visual vs audible and dictation vs hands on. That leaves you with at least four learning styles of people. Let’s develop tests to determine the learning styles of children and group them as such.
Obviously, this will be difficult in places with smaller populations as they may not have the resources to have separate classes for each one, but the teachers would know how to teach the material to each student. In larger populations, you can have teachers that specialize in one type of instruction versus another. You would set all children up for success by taking a systematic approach to their education. The learning would be accelerated in each group too, because you would be teaching to their strengths.
I really don’t understand why this isn’t already implemented and not even being discussed. This would be the most significant overhaul of education this country would ever see, and the test could be administered prior to 1st grade. Obviously the test would need to be tested and developed, but I’m sure schools like MIT and Stanford would jump at the opportunity to research and develop a test to completely change how we educate.
Let’s work smarter people. As a side note, I’m 25 years old and will be running for elected office in the near future to implement more systematic, research based approaches to everyday life.
Responding to Eppie’s comments:
(1) “Zimba said CC math will not prepare students for STEM or selective colleges.” This is a paraphrase and taken out of context. Zimba acknowledges that the CCSS math standards intended for all high school students top out in grade 11 (or before, for students on one of the compacted/accelerated pathways described in CCSSM Appendix A) and go through Algebra II. However, that’s not the end of his story; with grade 12 open (and grade 11 for students on an accelerated path), schools may add AP Calculus or other advanced courses. In addition, the (+) standards in the high school CCSS may be used to prepare students for calculus or other advanced math courses. The following link is to a lengthy post by Zimba; material pertinent here begins about halfway through at “Finally, I learned that the opposition continues to misrepresent my views. ” http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/2013/what-i-learned-about-the-common-core-state-standards-when-i-testified-in-indiana.html
(2) McCallum did not say that “CC standards are not very high,” rather he said “CC standards are not too high,” which can be taken in more than one way. McCallum has explained that he meant this in the more usual sense of “not excessively high”, as opposed to “not very high.” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765635115/Clarifying-criticism-of-Common-Core.html?pg=all
Common Core is sound and those opposing it do so from political and not educational positions. As this article makes clear, CC is not a curriculum, not a test and not a textbook and pretty much all the complaints about CC are actually about those things. I hate Lays chips ipso facto all potatoes are evil and a plot to destroy America! Here is a blogger whose post I have used in discussions at my school where we all support CC and the freedom we now have to teach we did not have under the old system.
CCSS is dying, done in by the hubris of tying inflexible standards and pacing to high stakes standardized tests (noting Zimba’s and Coleman’s background in this area). The message: We don’t trust districts of adopt the standards because of their quality or to adapt them to individual student needs, so teach what we say to teach, when we say to teach them, or suffer the consequences. A little humility might yet save the standards but treating them as sacrosanct, then blaming bad teaching and worse curricula on their problems, makes that seem unlikely.
Greg: The ed world has been big on the whole “learning styles” thing for years, and lots of seminars have been given to nodding teachers who lap it up. Schools have jumped on this completely not-new thing for some time.
However, the research coming out on learning styles show that it doesn’t actually make a difference in how much a student learns. Catering to “learning styles” to improve education turns out to be a false road.
Problem now is that teachers are so convinced that it’s real, it will be a long time before they drop the idea and move on to the next fad.
Thanks for this well-researched article. The last years of my education career before retirement were spent in the early days of attempting to help teachers discover how to approach the coming Common Core tests. The math experts I used in my regional workshops were impressed with the Core, while being sensitive to the many changes in when concepts were introduced. They did, however, find the math research on sequencing concepts in a step by step approach to mastering math to be well-designed. That folks are aghast at these changes is a reflection of our weak, state by state curriculum requirements, not of bad standards. Just look at state by state comparisons on math achievement levels and you will see that some regions do rather well while other states, notably in poorer regions, continue to be dreadfully and measurably behind.
I’m pleased to read that there is a recognition by the authors that assessments are not the answer to higher achievement–it’s good curriculum, which permits good instruction. Good teachers with the mediocre curriculum of many states simply will never reach the levels of schools in states with quality curriculum. Compare the curriculum and materials of Massachusetts and Mississippi and one might being to understand that important and generally ignored fact. If CCSS begins to help people level the playing field, as it has the potential to do, all the better. But if the materials continue to be the same mediocre texts with CCSS labels slapped on them, or minimal changes like moving content from one grade level to another without addressing the fundamental shifts in mathematical thinking that the Core envisions, the potential of the Core will not be realized and they will die in the mud of political hissy-fits. That, sadly, seems to be what is happening. CCSS have become a proxy fight between hardened partisans who are ignoring kids and good education as they pursue their partisan battles. And sadly, the misinformation and intentional distortions in these partisan battles draw well-meaning but ill-informed parents into the battle, giving the partisans undeserved clout. Several comments here bear this out rather clearly.
T Healy: The problem is something of a misdirection. Taken by themselves the CCSS aren’t too bad, certainly are better than what many states had before, and are mostly harmless. When challenged, CC proponents hide behind that, and all say that all these are standards, only standards, are nothing to be afraid of, and do not require any specific teaching methods or curricula.
Problem is, these same people are always talking about how this *will* change teaching, how new curricula *are* needed, how teachers will need to be trained in on how to teach for the Common Core, and how this changes everything! If it is just a set of guidelines for what kids should learn each year, then why do the same people say it changes everything?
The answer to that conundrum is two-fold. First: along with the CCSS are other pieces of documentation which make it clear that the Common Core & Race To The Top is more than just a set of standards. There are teaching guidelines which solidify project-based learning, student-centered learning, and constructivist teaching methods. In other words, it really is more than a set of standards, it really does dictate teaching methods, and will require many schools to adopt very different curricula than what they might have been using (successfully) before.
Secondly, it all comes down the tests. Like the No Child Left Behind law before it, the Common Core requires testing. So far, the tests seem to be getting written by people completely on the constructivist bandwagon, and who are writing them to make it hard for any student to be taught any other way.
But many people see constructivism as being on shaky ground. There is hardly a teacher working today that did not learn in ed school that student-centered, constructivist learning is the way to go. It has been the go-to educational theory for decades. But during those decades, when those teachers have been on the job, there has been no improvement in educational outcomes, and maybe some backsliding. By now, we should have overwhelming proof that this is the answer to education, but that proof simply is not there. If it were, then there wouldn’t be so much resistance to it, and people would be clamoring for more constructivism in schools and would have many fewer problems with the CC.
Additional problems are:
1) Despite being better than what many states had before, the CCSS are still *low* standards. They do not prepare kids for anything beyond the lowest rung of the college ladder and are not STEM preparatory.
2) Many places are treating the Common Core Standards not only as the floor below which no child should fall, but also as a ceiling beyond which no child should rise. Many districts are eliminating math tracking, 8th grade algebra, and calculus in the name of the Common Core.
3) As was mentioned by some commentators above, special needs students, who may be several years behind their peers in their ability to understand grade-level material, will have to be taught with that material regardless. There has certainly been a problem in the past with discounting what special needs students were capable of, but this takes it in the other direction and insists that all students must be average. Somehow, teachers and teacher aides are going to have to figure out how to teach students to understand material that is beyond them. Good luck with that.
4) The methods being required for teaching math are heavily language based, which will make it hard for people with poor English skills, especially immigrant ESL students. When your math curriculum requires you to explain every step in English–instead of in the language of math–then your math grade will be inextricably linked to your English one. In the past, many immigrant groups have used math and science to move ahead in society, becoming engineers and doctors. This path was easier than other career paths, because it didn’t require as solid a need for what to many immigrants was a foreign language–English.
5) This will *increase* not *decrease* differences along socio-economic lines. Parents like Mr. Zimba, well-educated parents, and affluent parents will all make sure that their children remain on a faster track than students whose parents are less in-tune to what is happening. I’ve heard of districts that bring the representative for places like Mathnasium or Kumon to the school to recruit for clients. Only parents who can afford outside help like that, or who home tutor, will be able to keep their kids on a path towards STEM and selective colleges.
6) The adoption of Common Core and the Race to the Top (and the No Child Left Behind) before it, are increasing the federal role in education. Many oppose that on purely ideological grounds, but there are other reasons to oppose a larger federal role.
It locks the entire country down to one thing; if that one thing takes in the wrong direction, we all go down together. With a state-centered system, a couple states my go the wrong way, but others hopefully will do better.
It prevents experimentation at the state and local levels. Instead of different states and districts adopting different curricula, teaching methods, and standards and seeing if they work, and working towards an improving system through experimentation, experimentation will now end. One system and done.
It’s hard enough to move changes through one school, through one district, or through one state. Making changes at a national level is almost impossible. If Common Core and the changes being made in its name turn out to be a failure, it will be years longer before the problems are corrected than if this were a state-based or district-based change.
The most substantive reason to question the CCSS – not mentioned in the article – comes from neuroscience and child psychology. The CCSS expectations in math or language arts are not neurodevelopmentally appropriate – especially before 5th grade. Why, is aptly explained by Dr. Megan Koshnick, child clinical psychologist presenting on how the Common Core Standards are developmentally inappropriate for young students at a conference held at Notre Dame. The event was sponsored by American Principles Project.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrQbJlmVJZo
“The stories you read here are produced by our team of experienced journalists, who take our watchdog role very seriously. We ask tough questions and challenge the status quo in education, and we prize our independence.”
I believe Hechinger Report stories can be naive and stuck inside the bubble of celebrity education policy “influencers” who have the money and publicity personnel to push their work and points of view.
Case in point: how is it that this particular clique of standards writers — not even remotely representative of the US population or standards writers in general — were picked to write our country’s common standards. And, why haven’t journalists looked at their track record. The same group folk inspired the standards/testing disasters of the 1990s in Kentucky, Maryland, California, and the New Standards Project. At the very least, they should have been made to explain how things will be different this time. To my knowledge, no journalist has ever asked them.
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