NCTM President: Core truths

Diane Briars
Diane Briars

Core Truths
By NCTM President Diane J. Briars

A little more than four years ago, on June 2, 2010, I was sitting with a small group of mathematics educators in the Peachtree Ridge High School auditorium in Suwanee, Georgia, on the occasion of the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Governors, state and district education leaders, business leaders, teacher union leaders, and a number of classroom teachers all described their strong support for CCSS and how having common, rigorous, world-class college- and career-ready standards would benefit both their students and the nation. Widespread adoption of CCSS was an unprecedented opportunity for systemic improvement in mathematics education in the United States. It would foster collaboration among adopting states and enable them to focus attention and resources on improving teaching, learning, and assessment to increase student achievement, instead of spending significant time, energy, effort, and dollars on creating and arguing about their own state standards.

Fast-forward four years, and where are we? While some states are moving forward, focusing on Common Core State Standards implementation, others are again becoming embroiled in public debates about the standards, and these debates threaten to squander the opportunity for systemic improvement that CCSS provides. With respect to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM), what I find most troubling is that much of the rhetoric is based on false or incomplete knowledge about the standards and their development, or it confuses the standards with implementation activities, issues, and policies, including testing policies. Such arguments have little potential to improve mathematics education. Distinguishing CCSSM facts from fallacy is essential both for implementing the standards effectively and for engaging in thoughtful, reasoned critique of them for future refinements.

Two important features of CCSSM that are being ignored or misrepresented are their research base and development process.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics are based on evidence about how students learn mathematics.

The foundation for CCSSM includes the series of National Research Council reports summarizing research about mathematics education—for example, Adding It Up (2001), How Students Learn: Mathematics in the Classroom (2005), and Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood (2009)—as well as the best of previous state standards and a large body of evidence taken from international comparisons. Research results incorporated into CCSSM include both general findings about how students learn mathematics and specific information about how they learn particular content. For example, in alignment with a well-established general research result, CCSSM builds procedural fluency on a foundation of conceptual understanding. Examples of research-based treatment of specific content include CCSSM’s treatment of the meaning of operations, multi-digit computation (moving from informal strategies to generalizable methods based on place value and properties of operations to standard algorithms), and ratios and proportional relationships (building understanding and solving proportions as equivalent ratios). For topics lacking a strong research base, CCSSM progressions draw on standards of individual states or high-performing countries. The series of Progressions documents written by leading researchers in the field summarizes the standards progressions for specific CCSS domains.

Many mathematics educators contributed to the writing of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

Although the Common Core State Standards were produced on an ambitious timeline, large numbers of mathematics educators had opportunities to participate in the process of developing CCSSM. In addition to the three lead authors, William McCallum, Phil Daro, and Jason Zimba, a 51-member Work Team and a 19-person Feedback Group, including teachers, mathematics education researchers, and mathematicians, participated in the development process. The lead writers also commissioned essays on mathematics education research that informed the writing of the standards.

The writing team received more than 10,000 comments through a review process that included four drafts—three sent to partner states, plus a public review draft. NCTM and other mathematics education organizations provided feedback throughout the writing process, including on the four drafts. As a member of two review teams, I can attest to the careful scrutiny that the drafts received and to the impact that the reviews had on subsequent drafts. Furthermore, project staff members were continually comparing the various drafts with high-quality state and international standards. In short, the CCSS development and review process was quite extensive, despite its relatively short timeline. FAQs that address other common CCSSM issues are available.

In addition to having accurate information about CCSSM, we need to distinguish criticism of the implementation of the CCSS from criticism of the standards themselves. Standards specify what students should learn. Decisions about how that learning is to occur—including those related to instructional materials, activities, lessons, units, scope and sequence, course design, homework, or assessments—are implementation issues. Almost all instructional resources now are advertised as “Common Core aligned,” with the result that materials that are simply skill worksheets may carry this label, even though the Common Core mathematics standards emphasize conceptual understanding, problem solving, and reasoning processes as well as skill fluency. Furthermore, incomplete understanding of particular standards, such as those calling for students to use various strategies to solve computation problems, may result in inappropriate assignments—for example, homework requiring students to solve each problem by using four different methods instead of one method of their own choosing or devising. Use of inappropriate materials or assignments is not the fault of the Common Core Standards but indicate the need for increased understanding of CCSSM and of resources that can effectively support students’ learning of them. It does not indicate that the standards themselves are flawed.

Particularly problematic is a tendency to equate CCSSM with testing and with test-related activities and practices. In response to accountability pressures to increase high-stakes test scores, schools, districts, and even states have instituted a wide range of test-prep activities, such as practice tests, frequent benchmark tests, and test practice worksheets. Much of the criticism of CCSSM, especially from parents, is about these test-prep practices and pressure on students to perform well. These practices were prevalent well before CCSS and are not part of it. To the contrary, the best preparation for the CCSS assessments, with their commitment to assessing all the standards, including the Standards for Mathematical Practice, is high-quality instruction—not test-question drill sheets.

Finally, despite the anti–Common Core rhetoric, overall support for CCSS is still strong. For example, according to a recent Gallup-Education Week poll, two-thirds of district superintendents believe that CCSS will improve the quality of education in their schools. Business Roundtable supports the full adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards as a way to build a more skilled, prepared workforce. And the United States Conference of Mayors recently reaffirmed its support for CCSS. Even if a handful of states replace CCSSM with their own standards, CCSS will still be the standards adopted and in place in a majority of states.
The Common Core State Standards represent too important an opportunity to squander because of rhetoric based on incorrect and incomplete information and public confusion of the Common Core State Standards themselves with shortcomings in their implementation. NCTM has developed a three-pronged approach to support the CCSSM:

1. Clearly describe and publicize the practices, policies, programs, and actions required for successful implementation of CCSSM through wide dissemination of Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. NCTM cannot do this alone. Our Affiliates and their members are important partners in this effort.

2. Enhance and expand our professional learning opportunities related to Principles to Actions and implementation of CCSSM at our conferences and institutes and in our journals, and continue to build our collection of relevant professional learning resources. This spring, each NCTM committee developed specific plans for this work.

3. Actively advocate for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, correcting misconceptions, clarifying confusion, and highlighting ways in which CCSSM supports students in learning more and better mathematics. Most important, we need to help parents and the broader public become aware that the conceptual understanding and habits of mind—for example, problem solving, reasoning, and perseverance—that CCSSM calls for are essential for students’ preparation for their futures.

This third prong requires all of us, especially teachers and parents, to personalize CCSSM by describing its benefits for their students and children. I strongly urge you to get involved in the dialogue. Correct misconceptions. Separate standards from implementation issues. And highlight the benefits and opportunities that the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics afford to increase the mathematics learning of all students.