Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lowering the bar: CCSS and math

The Pioneer Institute released a white paper this week that has drawn interest from educational professionals. This paper, Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM, authored by R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky criticizes the CCSS math standards for not being rigorous enough. At this point some educators and parents may be laughing at such a concept. The Common Core has been put out as deeper and more challenging- how then can it be a lowering of the bar? I think it comes down to a central question- What is the purpose of the CCSS and the assessments that go with them?

For a long time the standards and assessments have suffered from a spilt personality. They are to raise standards, which implies that fewer people will be able to successfully achieve them. They are to create a minimum bar across which every student must be able to leap. They are to increase employability of our graduates. They are to increase the number of students attending college. They are to measure the success of our schools. Recently we added they are to measure the success of our teachers. While these issues are all related, they are different and no single instrument could possibly accurately do them all well.

Milgram and Stotsky both were members of the CCSS Validation Committee and both refused to sign off on the official report of the Committee. Their letters describing their reasons for not signing off on the document may be accessed through the report linked to above.

The first concern is what is college readiness. Apparently it means not top tier schools and not STEM fields. I think that it can easily be argued that preparing all students to enter STEM fields or top tier schools is at best improbable and at worst an indefensible use of education. Only a small percentage of students will attend universities meeting either of these descriptions. Although we might wish it otherwise, this is the case. The number of STEM jobs are increasing, but so too is the competition for those jobs on the international marketplace. It is not just enough to be an engineer, you have to be in the top 50 percentile of engineers. If not your job prospects are very limited. Yes, we need more STEM trained individuals, but not any individual will be successful in a STEM career. Top tier schools will always be selective because they can be- it is part of what makes them top tier. They are not going to accept more students because of CCSS.

The average adult is far more likely to need to understand statistics than algebra 2 in going about their life. Read the newspaper and statistics like mean and median and graph reading abound. We do not ask readers to compute anything or understand the underlying math and science behind surveying land, determining the effectiveness of medications or explaining the speed of the internet. Most college degrees do not require more than a rudimentary level of math training. Let us teach math to have practical value- budgeting anyone? and to help us with daily life- I need to halve this recipe that includes fractions.

Students definitely need access to higher level math classes even if they are not required by the CCSS. They need to be encouraged to take complex classes because they teach the mind to think deeply. They should not be penalized for not being able to solve matrix algebra or trigonometric proofs by not being able to graduate. Further, pushing more students into algebra at younger ages has been demonstrated to reduce the number of students electing to take higher level math classes. (See research here.)  If we want to have more students succeed in math, we need to offer more options- slower classes for some who need more processing time, faster classes for some who intuitively "get" math, and classes that demonstrate real world uses of the basic math that we can use on a daily basis for students who are disengaged from math. Schools should not be saying the CCSS does not require it, so we will not teach these upper level math classes. I don't think they will drop the offerings that they have. With the advent of blended and online classes, more options are available at the upper end than ever before. We need to push students to push themselves into these options.

While the CCSS do not present an adequate background for some post high school options, they do present a background for most. We cannot ignore the weakness of the CCSS, but that does not mean the entire body of work needs to be thrown out. Students cannot be told in either words or in implication that CCSS are enough for all, but that they present a foundation for further learning that should never stop. Yes, the bar is not high enough for some and is more rigid than is probably good for many, but it is the bar we currently need to deal with.

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