The Wall Street Journal 5 augustus
Making Math Education
Even Worse
By Marina Ratner
I first encountered
the (new) Common Core State Standards last fall, when my grandson started sixth
grade in a public middle school here in Berkeley, Calif. This was the first
year that the Berkeley school district began to implement the standards, and I
had heard that a considerable amount of money had been given to states for
implementing them. As a mathematician I was intrigued, thinking that there must
be something really special about the Common Core. Otherwise, why not adopt the
curriculum and the excellent textbooks of highly achieving countries in math
instead of putting millions of dollars into creating something new?
Reading about the new math standardsoutlining what students
should be able to learn and understand by each gradeI found hardly any
academic mathematicians who could say the standards were higher than the old
California standards, which were among the nation's best. I learned that at the
2010 annual conference of mathematics societies, Bill McCallum, a leading
writer of Common Core math standards, said that the new standards "would
not be too high" in comparison with other nations where math education
excels. Jason Zimba, another lead writer of the mathematics standards, told the
Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that the new
standards wouldn't prepare students for colleges to which "most parents
aspire" to send their children.
I also read that the Common Core offers "fewer
standards" but "deeper" and "more rigorous"
understanding of math. That there were "fewer standards" became
obvious when I saw that they were vastly inferior to the old California
standards in rigor, depth and the scope of topics. Many topicsfor instance,
calculus and precalculus, about half of algebra II and parts of geometrywere
taken out and many were moved to higher grades.
As a result, the
Common Core standards were several years behind the old standards, especially
in higher grades. It became clear that the new standards represent lower
expectations and that students taught in the way that these standards require
would have little chance of being admitted to even an average college and would
certainly struggle if they did get in.
It remained to be seen whether the Common Core was
"deeper" and "more rigorous." The Berkeley school
district's curriculum for sixthgrade math was an exact copy of the Common Core
State Standards for the grade. The teacher in my grandson's class went through
special Common Core training courses.
As his assigned homework and tests indicate, when teaching
fractions, the teacher required that students draw pictures of everything: of 6
divided by 8, of 4 divided by 2/7, of 0.8 x 0.4, and so forth. In doing so, the
teacher followed the instructions: "Interpret and compute quotients of
fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by
fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the
problem. For example, create a story context for 2/3 divided by 3/4 and use a
visual fraction model to show the quotient . . ."
Who would draw a picture to divide 2/3 by 3/4?
This requirement of visual models and creating stories is
all over the Common Core. The students were constantly told to draw models to
answer trivial questions, such as finding 20% of 80 or finding the time for a
car to drive 10 miles if it drives 4 miles in 10 minutes, or finding the number
of benches one can make from 48 feet of wood if each bench requires 6 feet. A
student who gives the correct answer right away (as one should) and doesn't
draw anything loses points.
Here are some more examples of the Common Core's convoluted
and meaningless manipulations of simple concepts: "draw a series of tape
diagrams to represent (12 divided by 3) x 3=12, or: rewrite (30 divided by 5) =
6 as a subtraction expression."
This modeldrawing mania went on in my grandson's class for
the entire year, leaving no time to cover geometry and other important topics.
While model drawing might occasionally be useful, mathematics is not about
visual models and "real world" stories. It became clear to me that
the Common Core's "deeper" and "more rigorous" standards
mean replacing math with some kind of illustrative counting saturated with
pictures, diagrams and elaborate word problems. Simple concepts are made
artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeperwhile the
actual content taught was primitive.
Yet the most astounding statement I have read is the claim
that Common Core standards are "internationally benchmarked." They
are not. The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of
highachieving countries, just as they fail compared to the old California standards.
They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor
of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often
inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills.
For California, the adoption of the Common Core standards
represents a huge step backward which puts an end to its hardwon standing as
having the top math standards in the nation. The Common Core standards will
move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.
The teaching of math in many schools needs improvement. Yet
the enormous amount of money invested in Common Core$15.8 billion nationally,
according to a 2012 estimate by the Pioneer Institutecould have a better
outcome. It could have been used instead to address the real problems in
education, such as helping teachers to teach better, raising the performance
standards in schools and making learning more challenging.
Ms. Ratner is professor emerita of mathematics at the
University of California at Berkeley. She was awarded the international
Ostrowski Prize in 1993 and received the John J. Carty Award from the National
Academy of Sciences, of which she is a member, in 1994.
