Monday, April 18, 2016

The Problem with Common Core Math Standards

Here is a comment I wrote last year about my own experiences and thoughts on the Common Core math standards written on Diane Ravitch's blog: and some discussion that followed. Been thinking about the impact of the CCSS on my classroom a lot after administering the CCSS-aligned PARCC exam for the past two weeks....
To me, as a special educator trying to make sense of Common Core Math Standards for third and fourth graders, the problem arises in both the specifics- specific standards that are simply developmentally inappropriate for many (not all) kids-and the sheer amount of standards. Here in Illinois, our old standards were about 7 pages for PK-12 and not even dense text. The old standards covered multiple grades (early elementary, intermediate elementary, middle grades etc….) not individual grade levels. They were outlines, general guidelines to show what topics to cover. Different curricula and individual teachers had a lot of leeway in deciding how to tackle those topics.
The Common Core standards, on the other hand, are 52 pages long for math alone! They are highly prescriptive and require very specific teaching techniques. For example, for third graders (these are 8 years olds!) one standard says,
“CC.3.OA.8 Solve problems involving the four operations, and identify and explain patterns in arithmetic. Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (This standard is limited to problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers; students should know how to perform operations in the conventional order when there are no parentheses to specify a particular order (Order of Operations).)” 
These are some really hard concepts for kids many of whom developmentally are still thinking concretely. Say nothing about our students with special needs. And we’re asking them to do straight-up algebra. There are also multiple concepts in this one standard: mastery of all four operations, two-step word problems, creating algebraic expressions, rounding answers, and using mental math strategies. Seriously, this is ridiculous! By forcing this kind of complicated and abstract thought on kids who aren’t ready will make kids turn off to learning. And just wait ‘til you see the tests like PARCC that accompany these standards. They looked like college course exams instead of tests for elementary students.
Let’s talk about the amount of standards. For third grade alone, there are 35 of these complicated standards. There are less than 37 weeks of school in the Chicago Public Schools calendar, and in schools like mine, up to 15 weeks of that time is interrupted due to testing. The pacing is way too fast for many kids. The amount of standards required per grade level leads to a whirlwind of concepts being thrown at kids who are often aren’t ready for them even if they were given sufficient time.
And my kids with special needs are especially damaged by these standards. Their education is being warped in order to comply with these federal mandates. Teachers everywhere feel the tension around teaching concepts we know kids aren’t ready for, and what we’re being forced to do every day just to keep our jobs. The Chicago Public Schools IEP system won’t even let us put in standards from lower grade levels for our students to work on-they say it has to be the chronological grade level of the child regardless of where they are currently functioning.
I’m tired of people saying, what’s wrong with the “mathematical practices”? Nothing, if that’s all the standards were. It’s the other 52 pages that is harming students, especially in the younger grades and kids with special learning needs. There were no elementary teachers or special educators included in developing these standards, which is very evident in practice.
Common Core sets kids up to fail. That’s not the kind of teaching I believe in.
 Here is a comment written in response:
  • Katie,
    I appreciate the frustration you are expressing. The CC standards are a long document. When you actually look at the number of pages for each grade level, it is actually much more manageable although certainly not as meager as 7 pages for all the grades–which sounds to me more like a list of topics rather than standards.
    My experience is this:
    — CC is new and teachers/parents are having a hard time changing to what is new
    –the math is particularly daunting to educators who have relied on their own algorithms rather than a clear conceptual understanding of what those algorithms do
    –making the switch requires really good and ONGOING professional development to help teachers along with the unfamiliar parts of the standards
    –many materials claiming to be Common Core are confusing the issue and making it harder for teachers by providing pages of materials that actually confuse rather than help with conceptual understanding
    –many textbooks over-teach what is actually required and if teachers follow those texts page by page, they will be overwhelmed and frustrated
    –Common Core is sometimes being confused with testing as accountability and although many proponents of one are proponents of the other, they are not the same thing
    I hope you will give Common Core math more time for you to digest it. Try things out without being too hard on yourself. Some of your special ed kiddos will take to concepts and LOVE them. Others will certainly respond better to learning the steps of an algorithm. Special Education is always the hardest area of implementation and I respect what you do immensely.
  • @educhange Thank you for your thoughtful comment, but I disagree. I don’t need more professional development in order to teach developmentally inappropriate standards. And no one ever mentions the pacing required to cover everything-it leaves our kids with disabilities far behind. In fact, since the general education curriculum has changed so significantly, myself and many colleagues are having to rethink Least Restrictive placements for some students with disabilities. I teach special education at a Title 1 neighborhood school on the south side of Chicago, so my students are often some of the most vulnerable kids in our system. And Common Core is harming them. We are seeing behavioral and academic consequences to implementing an experimental, inappropriate set of standards.
    But to take a step back, we know Common Core was not primarily written or pushed by educators, but by the testing industry and proponents of neoliberal education reform. Seem from that point of view, where schools like mine need to “fail” in order to promote privatization and to extract profit from our public K-12 system, the Common Core’s difficulties are not a fluke, but done by design.

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