For many students, “math is often an impenetrable barrier to academic success,” and requiring them to reach high-levels like Algebra II—as Common Core State Standards do—“drives dropouts at both the high school and college levels,” argues Dana Goldstein, an education author, in an opinion piece published by Slate. Goldstein cites fellow author Andrew Hacker, who says, “We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented…but can’t even get a community college degree.”
While, Goldstein is right that math is often a challenging subject for students the Common Core standards are helping prepare students for success. Previously, students often lacked an understanding of numbers and functions and instruction focused on getting to an answer without much explanation of the why or how. As a result, students might have learned to apply rules but never grasp the rationale behind those strategies.
But the Common Core State Standards—which Goldstein mischaracterizes as “curriculum standards”—helps students build conceptual understanding by encouraging them to use multiple approaches, in addition to standard algorithms. A math-check by the Collaborative for Student Success explains, “It’s important for kids to learn multiple approaches to solving math problems so…they develop a full understanding of the concepts before they move on to more challenging levels.”
Goldstein acknowledges that top performing countries prioritize conceptual understanding starting at early grades. “This is what countries like Singapore do so well. They start with the conceptual business very, very early.” A 2012 study by William Schmidt and Richard Houang, researchers at Michigan State University, found Common Core State Standards are 90 percent aligned to those of high-performing countries. Like those countries’ models, Common Core drills down on fewer topics so student develop a better mastery of them.
Jason Zimba, one of the lead writers of the Common Core math standards, points out that Common Core State Standards still require students to know the basics. Earlier this year he wrote, “Students are expected to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations (the traditional ‘carry’ method, in the case of addition).”
So why ask students to reach high levels of math? To start, most colleges require students to master these subjects, as the article points out. More importantly, many students need a strong foundation in math for their career pursuits. Especially at high levels, math requires students to exercise critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are applicable beyond the classroom. It makes sense then that students should be challenged so they can graduate high school prepared to tackle difficult material.
Common Core State Standards strike a balance by requiring most of what makes up the traditional content of Algebra II. The standards provide a baseline that ensures, when met, students will be able to successfully step into college-level algebra, and they include additional criteria for students who want to go further.
Instead of weakening education standards, policymakers should be focused on raising the bar for students—as the Common Core does. By holding students to rigorous expectations and helping them to achieve to those levels, educators will ensure more students develop strong math skills necessary to succeed in college and the workforce.