It’s hard to think of a publication with a duller title than Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. But it’s also hard to imagine a document of greater importance to the future of the country and to the technology industry in particular. The Common Core math standards along with a companion documents covering reading and writing standards, released March 10 by the National Governors Assn. and the Council of Chief State School Officers, seek to ignite a nationwide revolution in K-12 education. And it’s time for the tech industry to take a stand, stop complaining about the quality of American K-12 education, and do something.
The Common Core project was ignited by a perception that the No Child Left Behind Act had accelerated a trend in which states “improved” the performance of students on standardized tests by steadily lowering the standards on which those tests were based. This trend was evidenced by a wide gap between results on many states’ tests and the performance of their students on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
For political reasons, the Common Core standards are wrapped in the polite fiction that they are something other than national standards. In theory, this was a bottom-up effort by 48 states (Alaska and Texas, whose Neanderthal Gov. Rick Perry seems to value “state sovereignty” over the education of Texas children, declined to participate.) In practice, the Obama Administration was deeply involved because adoption of the Common Core standards are a precondition for federal Race to the Top grants.
There are effectively two sets of standards for high school math, a basic set of topics whose mastery is supposed to indicate readiness for work or college, and a set of advanced topic required by students intending to go into science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) careers. But even the basic standards are full of serious math such as factoring polynomials and dealing with systems of inequalities. The STEM topics cover math through a solid precalculus course including basic vector algebra, trigonometry, exponential and logarithmic functions, and advanced understanding of polynomials.
The standards finesse a quarter century of argument about the use of calculators in school mathematics by concentrating on what is to be learned, without worrying about how it is learned. The use of calculators or other technology is suggested for certain topics, such as statistical simulations, but the question of technology is otherwise ignored. But the standard do generally come down on the “traditionalist” side of the long battle over math reform with an emphasis on hard-core math and fundamental skills and a deemphasis of data collection and modeling. In fact, modeling has been eliminated as a core concept because “modeling is best interpreted not as a collection of topics but rather in relation to other standards.”
The next step is adoption of the Common Core by the states. States, enticed by the Race to the Top money, are rushing to act. (Kentucky bravely adopted the standards in advance based on an earlier draft.) But I suspect there will be some bitter fights before it is over. The standards will require considerable beefing up of math education in elementary schools, where woeful training often leaves teachers unprepared to handle serious math instruction. Without serious attention to teacher quality, and that means spending money that school districts don’t have, the Common Core will be nothing more than a wish list.
I also expect hostility to the idea of national standards to become a political issue. In Richmond, for example, Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virgina Dept. of Education was quoted by The Washington Post as saying: “”Virginia has a successful standards-based reform program — the Standards of Learning. Abandoning those standards would be very disruptive to our school divisions, our teachers and our students. We’ve made all of this progress in the last 15 years under the SOL program. It’s not something we’re just going to walk away from.” That claim, however, is a bit difficult to assess. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress–a national test whose frameworks strongly influenced the Common Core– 76% of Virginia eighth graders met the basic standard for math, but only 36% scored as proficient. Both numbers are essentially unchanged from 2005 and 2007. Virginia stopped publishing statewide results of its SOL exam in 2006, making comparison of national and state standards impossible.
A handful of tech companies–Intel, Dell, and Texas Instruments–have signed on as “endorsing sponsors” of the common core effort. But if industry leaders are serious in their complaining about the quality of workers coming out of U.S. public schools, they are going to have to do a lot more. This is a rare opportunity to get meaningful change in education. It’s time for tech to worry a bit less about tax breaks for itself and put some real effort into getting these standards adopted.