How States Can Fix Math Education Post-Common Core

July 22, 2019

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


As the evidence becomes clearer that experts and parents were right about Common Core being an academic disaster and not merely derailed by implementation problems, states must grapple with the hard work of revamping their education standards. Thanks to the excellent executive order of Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida is deeply involved in doing just that. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and perhaps other states will be soon starting the same process.

Today we will discuss mathematics standards. These standards must be done right from the beginning because math is such a sequential discipline that, if they are poorly done, math education can be crippled for life — as has happened to many children with the Common Core, especially poor and minority children where it is far more difficult to obtain outside help. Here is some evidence of that from three different states:

California

According to a 2018 paper by the Hoover Institution’s Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman:

Adopting the Common Core math curriculum standards has proven to be a setback for California. When California had its own mathematics standards before Common Core, its students performed significantly better in math than they have after the Common Core was put into effect. The hardest hit by this change were the most vulnerable students. The state of California Education under Common Core is not good.

Massachusetts

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, former Massachusetts assistant commissioner of education, also noted the math declines for vulnerable students in that previously high performing state:

Here are the percentages of African-American and Hispanic students who were at or above proficient on grade 8 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests for Math from 2011 to 2017 in Massachusetts:

Florida

According to these tables derived from Florida’s 2017 NAEP scores, achievement gaps that were narrowing in math before Common Core implementation have started to widen again for fourth grade Hispanic students and for both Hispanic and African-American students in eighth grade:

4th Grade Math

YEAR White-Black White-Hispanic
2011 250-226 = 24 250-236 = 14
2013 251-228 = 23 251-228 = 13
2015 251-228 = 23 251-240 = 11
2017 255-233 = 22 255-242 =13

8th Grade Math

YEAR White-Black White-Hispanic
2011 287-258 = 29 287-274 = 13
2013 291-264 = 27 291-274 = 17
2015 285-258 = 27 285-272 = 13
2017 291-262 = 29 291-273 = 18

What Should Be Done?

Based on the national expert recommendations by such luminaries as Dr. Ted Rebarber, Ze’ev Wurman, and JR Wilson, and based on the very important writings of Dr. James Milgram put forth by the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, here are several key issues that states should address when doing new math standards:

1) Math standards should promote the actual performance of math problems in a much higher percentage than understanding, thinking about, or communicating about mathematical concepts, especially in the earlier grades.

Ted Rebarber and Neal McCluskey confirmed research showing that Common Core’s focus on understanding instead of procedural learning and fluency has resulted in achievement declines for the U.S. compared to other high performing countries like Singapore on international comparison assessments.

It is useful to compare Common Core’s approach with that of nations whose students lead the world in math achievement. Apart from the mathematical content covered, Porter and his colleagues found that Common Core does not align well with top-performing countries such as Singapore, Japan, and Finland, which place “… a much greater emphasis on ‘performing procedures’ than found in the U.S. Common Core standards. For each country, approximately 75 percent of the content involves ‘performing procedures,’ whereas in the Common Core standards, the percentage emphasis for procedure is just 38 percent,” a vast difference. Porter found it “surprising [that]…High performing countries’ emphasis on ‘perform procedures’ runs counter to the widespread call in the United States for a greater emphasis on higher order cognitive demand.” While teachers in other leading nations may initially introduce a new skill through a discussion of the concept, afterward students devote extensive time to practicing. [Emphasis added]

Second-career math teacher Barry Garelick, author of three books on math education and of a new book that is being serialized on the excellent Truth in American Education blog, also emphasizes procedural fluency and teaches algebra from a 1962 textbook.

2) Ensure that new standards provide a reasonable progression of skill and knowledge attainment to the completion of a full Algebra 1 course by the end of 8th grade, as is done in other high-performing countries. This should be universally available to allow all students to pursue a STEM degree who want to, but not universally required for those that do not want this college focus.

Common Core abandoned the expectation in high performing states that students complete a full Algebra I course by the end of grade 8. As a practical matter, this means that the great majority of American students will not be able to reach calculus in high school.  Furthermore, completion of a calculus course by the end of high school is necessary for STEM at the university level and, as to non-STEM majors, for entrance to many competitive universities.

Common Core’s placement of Algebra I in ninth grade necessitates an accelerated path to calculus in twelfth grade, increasing the need for private tutoring and summer school tuitions.  As a practical matter, this disproportionately benefits the well-to-do who can more readily afford such additional expenditures.

3) To be of high quality, math standards must include necessary math content standards that Common Core fails to include.

This very long list is discussed by Dr. Milgram and Ze’ev Wurman on pages 7-9 of FSCCC’s recommendations. Additionally, although developed before Common Core, the 2007 Minnesota math standards were developed by then chairman of undergraduate math, Dr. Lawrence Gray (a mathematician) at the University of Minnesota and a group of math educators, parents, mathematicians, and science professionals to be developmentally appropriate and integrated from grade to grade in order to actually prepare students to succeed in undergraduate math at that university. Since then, Minnesota’s NAEP scores in math have been consistently first or second in the nation, and Minnesota never adopted Common Core math.

An excellent podcast interview with Dr. Gray about their process is available here. The Washington Exemplary Math Standards are also an excellent example of that kind of strong development process utilizing math educators, parents, mathematicians, and science professionals.

4) There should be no requirement for specific instructional strategies, especially for some of the experimental ones used in geometry, with the exception of the standard algorithms for the basic operations in the early grades, which are generally the most efficient and universally practiced.

Under Common Core, according to experts like Dr. Milgram, the teaching of the standard algorithms is 1-2 years behind high-performing states and countries, making it very difficult for students to catch up and be prepared for higher math.

The Instructional Strategies dictate various ways for approaching a problem and Common Core dictates that children learn these before they learn the Standard Algorithm for a particular type of problem. 

5) As discussed in our Pioneer Institute White paper and in the FSCCC recommendations, there is little to no research basis for social emotional learning parameters like “grit” and a “growth mindset,” and these should not be included in new math standards.

These parameters have little or nothing to do with academic learning and have no place in what are supposed to be academic content standards. Barry Garelick, as an experienced math teacher, thinks little of the growth mindset to improve learning.

There are several other important recommendations on our list, but these are key for restoring math education to its status prior to the imposition of the academically inferior, developmentally inappropriate and psychologically manipulative Common Core standards that have done so much harm to American students.


Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

Archive: Karen R. Effrem, MD

One comment on “How States Can Fix Math Education Post-Common Core”

  • Karen Bracken says:

    Dr. Effrem,
    I have signed up several times to receive articles from National Pulse and still to this day do not receive them. I generally stumble across them on FB but never actually get anything in email. I will register again and see what happens. Thanks so much for all the great information.

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