January 01, 2011

Common Core Math Standards: Worse for Our Kids and Millions of Dollars Wasted?

A major decision is going to be made by this session of the Washington State legislature--one that will profoundly affect math education in our state and one that could cost the state tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at at a time when budgets are extraordinarily tight. This decision is flying under the radar of most of the media and many politicians.

The decision? Should Washington State adopt the new "national" Common Core math standards produced by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, giving up our new and highly enhanced math standards adopted in 2008.

This is important, so stay with me.

A little history first. As described in numerous media reports and national studies, the performance of U.S. students in math is lagging that of students in many other nations. And I have certainly seen math deficiencies increase while I have been teaching at the UW. If we are to remain a leading technological nation this cannot continue. Now the reasons for this decline are really not hard to find, ranging from many teachers have insufficient knowledge in mathematics, poor math standards in many states, trendy new-age instructional ideas (e.g., "Discovery" and "Integrated" mathematics) in vogue in schools of education, and yes, issues of student discipline, motivation and family support.

Recently, we have made substantial progress in our state, including the adoption of much-improved state math standards, the rejection of "Discovery Math" in many districts (e.g., Shoreline, Bellevue) and the acquisition of very good new books in some of these districts. There are, of course, some disaster districts, such as Seattle and Issaquah, who insist on retaining some of the worst textbooks and are providing their kids with an inferior math education. But overall, we are in a better place than a few years ago.

A number of well-meaning groups, such as the Gates Foundation and some in the Obama administration, have concluded that the U.S. math deficiency should be addressed by adopting national math standards. Now a major issue for such standards is that the Federal Government does not have authority over education, that being one of the powers retained by the states. To deal with this "problem" the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers established a group of mathematicians, educators, and curriculum specialists to put together a set of national Common Core math standards, standards that were released last year. (As I will discuss later, these standards are not well written, lack any associated assessments, and are completely untested.)

Without any real regulatory authority to push these standards into local districts, the Obama Administration has dangled a large financial carrot in front of the financially strapped states--- hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal "Race to the Top" initiative. In fact, states have been so desperate that many have agreed to adopt the new Common Core math standards sight unseen and untested as part of their applications for Race to the Top (RtTT) cash.

In a bid to get some of the RtTT money, Washington
provisionally adopted the standards last year (Senate Bill 6696), and that the legislation allows our Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to adopt the Common Core standards if the legislature this year does nothing to stop it. In other words, we are going to go with Common Core if the legislature doesn't act this session to delay or stop it.

Ironically, Washington State's application to the Race to the Top (RtTT) program was declined for a number of reasons, including our unwillingness to take on another RtTT requirement--adopting charter schools. So we have agreed to replace our new excellent math standards, standards given an "A" by the Fordham Foundation and adopted in 2008, with an untested new program, and we will get none of the funds we were after.

But it is even worse than that--there are huge costs in switching to the Common Core standards. Moving to our new 2008 standards, the state spent over 30 million dollars in training over one year. Certainly, the switch to the Common Core standards could equal or exceed such costs. And what about changing millions of textbooks for nearly a million WA State students to be consistent with the new standards? Hundreds of millions of dollars? All of this in a state which is critically short of funds, where K-12 and universities are taking major cuts, and where the social safety net is being frayed by major cutbacks. Folks, this doesn't make sense.

Now are the new Common Core standards better than the current ones enjoyed in our state? The answer is a clearly no. As noted before, the Fordham Foundation rated ours higher and a review by the state math watchdog group, wheresthemath.com, has documented a number of problems Common Core compared to our current standards. Some examples:

(1) Common Core standards are extraordinarily difficult to read and decipher, a critical requirement for any standard. It is will be very difficult for most teachers to understand what they need to be teaching--which is a huge problem. Want an example? Here is an example of a fifth grade Common Core standard:

Interpret the product (a/b) × q as a parts of a partition of q into b equal parts; equivalently, as the result of a sequence of operations a × q ÷ b. For example, use a visual fraction model to show (2/3) × 4 = 8/3, and create a story context for this equation. Do the same with (2/3) × (4/5) = 8/15. (In general, (a/b) × (c/d) = ac/bd.)

and plenty are a lot worse than this. On the other hand, our current standards have far greater clarity.

(2) Common Core delays teaching many basic mathematical ideas, from essential mathematical operations to algebra.

More problems are described in the links at the bottom of this blog.

As noted above, there have been no pilots or tests of these new standards. No proof that they enhance student performance. Can you imagine pushing a new national math standard without insuring that students learn better with them? An extraordinary mistake.

Assessments of new standards determine what will be taught and how it will be taught (we learned this to our sorrow with the ill-fated WASL!). Assessments for the new standards have not yet been created, so there is no way to evaluate this crucial component.

There, of course, is a political dimension to all this. In essence it represents the transfer of local prerogatives on educational standards to a national entity, an issue of of concern to some. If the national standards and assessments WERE better, would we want to give up local determination of this issue? I wont debate that issue in this blog. In addition, it is not clear who will control the evolving Common Core standards. A number of people involved in the "reform" and "discovery" math movement are active in it--what if they gained control? Could this end up a huge national disaster?

So we have basically two choices:

(1) We can continue with the adoption of the new, unproven Common Core math standards, standards that are inferior to what we have now. We will then be committed to spending hundreds of millions of new dollars on this transition...money we really don't have. If the legislature doesn't act, this is what will happen.

(2) We can decide to wait. Stay with OUR new State math standards that are now in place, with all their advantages. Watch carefully and see if some of the Common Core issues noted above are resolved. Our State can remain engaged with national efforts, but we wait to see if Common Core evolves. I believe this is the only logical and prudent course of action. To do so, the legislature must take positive action to delay implementation of Common Core or revoke its adoption (this mean revocation of SB 6696, Sec 601, which passed last year). Thus, it is important that each of you contact your legislators to let them know you feelings on this critical issue.

Legislative Hotline ist 1.800.562.6000.
To find a list of state legislator e-mail addresses go to http://www.leg.wa.gov/pages/home.aspx

It is time for the Governor, Superintendent Randy Dorn, and leaders in the State legislature to show some leadership on this critical issue. And well-funded groups like the Gates Foundation and State business groups need to take a more informed approach. It is so frustrating that those with the power to deal with this issue, fall back on the same tired ideas and listen to the same educational consultants. Schools of Education are generally a big part of the problem, not the solution.

It is perhaps an American deficiency that we jump for quick fixes, without taking the time to carefully determine and address the real core problems. The rush to push untested Common Core math standards on states around the country is a real symptom of our inability to solve our big problems. It is time to do better and we can do so in WA State by not joining the stampede. Some states, such as Texas, Virgina, Alaska and Minnesota have already declined to participate. There is no reason to rush into this and many reasons to wait.

Some links with further information:







  1. You are right, Cliff. The problem is that money talks and Washington state is listening to the jingle. I can't see the legislature turning down any chance for more dollars even if it means lowering standards. Sorry to say to say it as blunt as that.

  2. I am on our local school board and I'm a CPA. Suffice it to say I care about Math Education. You are absolutely right about our propensity towards a quick fix. Good math education is not rocket science, but it requires focus, practice, steady building of skills and good standards. I applaud you and your willingness to speak out on this critical issue. (I like your weather blog too)

  3. I'm sure someone has already commented, but the last hyperlink points to the wrong location.

  4. I'd be skeptical of any math "standards" coming from our government. Just look at how they handle numbers of any kind using various kinds of voodoo! Their official unemployment number at 9.8%, yet the data suggest its much higher, around 20%. The official inflation rate is around 1%. Yet anyone buying a bag of groceries, paying for health insurance, or pumping gas knows that its much higher. I'll refrain from discussing the budget, deficit and the national debt disgraces.

    Perhaps these lower standards are designed to train our kids so they won't ever notice these discrepancies.


  5. What's with the long-term snow forecasts here? Weather.com has snow and 37F on Monday 1/10 and on 1/11 Tuesday there is a 60% chance of snow and 38F. Accuweather.com shows mid-30's, and some snow. Looks to get interesting again. A ways out, sure, but even the NWS is talking about it in their discussions.

  6. Cliff, I agree. And, there's more going here than good or bad math instruction. I work with lots of teenagers. A member of my youth group is a senior at Ingraham HS who scored a 2200 SAT. Apparently Seattle schools are working for him! His mental gift is not brilliance but rather a natural ability to focus his mind. Nobody taught this to him. Meanwhile, my daughter, a sophomore, reports that her #1 struggle in high school is dealing with the relentless distractions in a typical day. American high schools are, by design, beehives of hyperactivity. I know her math teachers; they are good. I also know that there is no way I could learn math in that environment (and I didn't; I picked it up later). Too many kids who don't want to be there. Too much eye and ear candy. What she IS learning are tremendous social and coping skills in an unfathomably complex social environment. This bodes well for some things, but not excellence in math. There are other, greater factors at work in our schools than standards and "rigor". Good math education IS rocket science, and the required "focus, practice, steady building of skills..." noted by Leigh is simply not available to many students in our schools because of the very nature of the school learning environment. Manipulating standards won't change that. Meanwhile, my college students report that they can't learn math at college (where I did) because teaching assistants doing the instruction have such poor American English skills that they are undecipherable. So your students in lecture in Condon Hall may not be learning any math either. Complicated, yes?

  7. Yup ...

    We certainly have been Betrayed as in Betrayed:
    How the Education Establishment has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about it

    The depth of centralized lunacy is remarkable. No one could possibly want more. ESSB 6696 needs to be rejected.

    The state recently redirected (stole) $208 million headed to individual school districts to maintain teacher ratios in the classroom during this recessionary time. The Gov. and legislature put the $208 million in the general fund. School districts received zero to maintain teaching positions. So much for fast tracking the money to get to school districts in time.

    For the state now to take money and spend it for more centralized nonsense like Common Core Standards and Core 24 shows how little concern there really is for students in the classroom. The concern seems to be for those far removed from the classroom. There is no need for more jobs for and more planning planning by those far removed from the classroom.

    Until this system is "Decentralized" it will continue to be the debacle that continues.

    "To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data."

  8. Check out this job at OSPI

    The SMARTER Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) seeks a Program Manager to fill a position in support the Executive Director of a multi-year project to design comprehensive assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

    This is just the tip of the spending iceberg, which we are about to be hit by:

    As the "Program Manager" performs various management and program coordination associated with all aspects of the SMARTER Balance Consortium (SBAC) through direct support to the SBAC Executive Director and OSPI Assessment Business Manager.

    So where is the funding to work with the children?

    Money for the development of more top down directives but little for schools. At least now you know where that stolen $208 million is headed.

  9. Thank you for the heads up on the "Common Core" issues. I had not heard of it prior to reading your entry.

  10. I agree with your analysis and would hope that the State Legislature turns down the money from a Federal Government already deep in debt.

    Too much intrusion by the Federal Government has led to a lowering of educational standards - call it a phenomenon. Our educational system was in better shape before the Fed. Department of Education ever existed. Consequently, elimination of the Federal Dept. of Education would appear to be a step in the right direction and let the states have more authority. However, this transition needs to be done thoughtfully.

  11. Is there anything that prevents the State from adopting the common core standard *and* retaining its own higher standard? Is there anything in the current State standard that the common core standard requires *not* be taught? Seems like the State could just require meeting common core on the way to its own higher standard. Or does common core *require* math to be taught in ineffective ways incompatible with present State standards?

  12. It should be noted that SB 6696 has already passed, and delaying/stopping it would require new legislation. Important distinction when talking to our representatives.

  13. In hopes of inspiring other readers, here's the letter I've sent to Murry, Pederson, and Chopp:

    I'm sure you've received letters from other constituents as a result of Cliff Mass's article about math education standards: http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/01/common-core-math-standards-worse-for.html

    I have no children, and only informal family connections to the industry of education. But I am keenly interested in the competitiveness of Seattle on the global talent stage, and was prompted by professor Mass to learn more about this issue. I won't restate his argument for you, here, but please note that I consider adoption of the Common Core per SB6696 to be an egregious misstep in three ways:
    • it will require unproductive expenditure
    • it abdicates our goals to a national approach which reduces Washington's potential to outperform the nation,
    and, most importantly,
    • it is a lesser standard than our own doomed to result in lower proficiency in our workforce.

    Please work on my behalf to revoke or delay (pending assessment) our State's adoption of Common Core.

  14. Let us examine the hand of the UW's "Math Ed Elites" in producing the chaos.

    Let us review the data that came out of the "UW Math Education Pros" work with the Seattle schools. From looking a individual schools, the greater the level of UW intervention the worse the math results became.

    Some are still selling the spin but now there exist extensive results and they are uniformly terrible. It is time to analyze results rather than believing in fairy-tales and the "UW experts" must stop trying to get the rest of us to keep on believing.

    Tragically ...... OSPI, Seattle School District Administration, and four Seattle School Directors are among the few outside the Ed Elite Experts at UW still believing.

    "To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data"

  15. I agree with your claim that our new state standards are are well written and raise the bar significantly. I am a currently unemployed JH/SH math teacher and am encouraged that our math standards will help more students reach college better equipped for college level math courses. One important piece that has not been mentioned is that school districts receive federal funding based on how their students measure up against their state standards. This is not a new Obama thing, it is from George W's "No Child Left Behind." While Washington's standards encourage student college readiness and proficiency, they are not easy to achieve and schools or districts will not meet the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) that is necessary to receive federal funds. Other states with lower standards won't have better prepared students, but their districts will still receive funding, potentially.

    I don't want to get rid of our state math standards, but I do want my students' success measured against a common benchmark and I don't think adopting the new standards is an "either/or" proposition. We can utilize both standards and measure our success against both. The national standards will not be more rigorous than our current standards, so why not let our students' achievement be measured with them? Districts don't have to make any other changes and the expenses you describe, Cliff, do not have to be a reality. Washington state math teachers can still guide their students toward mastery of current state standards and also see how our kids stack up against the rest of the country. I think we need the Common Core Math Standards.

  16. You forgot to mention that Washington heads up a 31-state consortium that was awarded a four-year $176 million Race to the Top assessment grant by the US Dept. of Education to develop a student assessment system aligned to a common core of academic standards. The Exceutive Director of the consortium is none other than Dr. Joe Willhoft, who was previously the Assistant Superintendent for Assessment and Student Information at OSPI under Randy Dorn. A delay in the adoption of Common Core Standards would deal more than just a blow to the state's Race to the Top application. It would be a huge embarrassment for the newly formed assessment consortium.

  17. I'm not a big fan of standardized ANYTHING. It teaches conformity in a society that claims to value independence and originality. I was a victim of standardized testing in my youth, pigeon-holed and required to think of myself as not highly intelligent because I didn't do well on tests. It was like Huxley's Brave New World. I devoted a number of years after High School to reading, study, and self-development, and I learned more in those few years than any of my teachers got across with their condescension and pigeon-holing. I am now a teacher and I enjoy a very high success rate because I do not talk down to my students, I do not believe in assembly-line teaching and I simply go in there, do my thing, and go home at the end of the day. My students score well above passing on those damned tests. I am a success because I believe and know that teaching is about imparting knowledge and character, not slamming people into bureaucratic molds to make someone in D.C. happy. I am sure I will be burned at the stake for this.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.