While most states raised expectations for students by adopting the Common Core, the “opposite is true” in California, claims Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University-Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. The problem, the piece alleges, is the “Common Core math standards, and the misguided philosophy of mathematics education behind them.” Bishop contends that exploration of real-world problems, “rather than the artificial setting of a competent teacher teaching a concept followed by straightforward application thereof,” and the use of “nonstandard arithmetic algorithms” actually decrease student learning.
There’s a difference between the changes Bishop takes issue with – and what they really look like. In place of rote memorization, schools are now focused on helping students build understanding of math operations and fluency with numbers. By helping students explore multiple problem-solving approaches, instruction empowers students to think about the “how” and “why” of math problems, which creates the foundations to succeed in later levels.
To be clear, though, students are still expected to master the basics, like multiplication tables and standard algorithms. And, as experts point out, methods new and old still require extensive practice and support at home. “Parents can and should be involved with their children’s learning at home,” explains Jason Zimba, a founding partner of Student Achievement Partners and lead writer of the Common Core math standards.
Both anecdotally and in results from state assessments, there is a lot of evidence that suggests states’ new approach to math is working. In California, students made sizable gains in math (a five-point improvement statewide across all grades) in the second year of exams aligned to the state’s new learning goals.
“The message should be clear,” Jim Cowen wrote recently. “High standards and high-quality assessments best serve our students’ needs, help prepare them for college and careers, and are delivering promising results. To change course would be a mistake.”
Kathy Liu Sun, an assistant professor of math at Santa Clara University, explains that students are now coming up with solutions on their own, instead of prescriptively being told how to solve problems. “The goal is for students to be able to think flexibly. Students should have the opportunity to explore, test strategies, and make sense of answers.”
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics supports the transition states are making. The changes, the organization notes in its policy position, “offer a foundation for the development of more rigorous, focused, and coherent mathematics curricula, instruction, and assessments that promote conceptual understanding and reasoning as well as skill fluency.”
Bishop’s claim that California has actually lowered its standards flies in the face of the evidence, as well. A Harvard University analysis this year gave the rigor of California’s math standards a B+ rating in 2015. In 2009, before the state adopted Common Core Standards, the state’s standards earned a C grade.
California’s Common Core Standards “reflect the importance of focus, coherence, and rigor as the guiding principles for mathematic instruction and learning,” State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson wrote in 2010. Implementation “demonstrates a commitment to providing a world-class education for all students that supports college and career readiness and the knowledge and skills necessary to fully participate in the twenty-first-century global economy.”
Importantly, California authorities continue to refine and build on their standards to ensure they fully meet students’ needs. That was always the purpose of the Common Core, to set a high baseline for educators and administrators to further build up from. It’s hard to see any way that doesn’t add up for California students.