Indiana has been one of the states at the forefront of the Common Core debate. That is due in no small part to the fact that Indiana was among the early adopters of the CCSS and due to the fact that there has been a concerted effort in Indiana to un-adopt the standards.
One of the leading opponents of the CCSS in Indiana is Heather Crossin. So successful have Crossin and her grassroots organization been that Indiana decided this year to temporarily suspend Common Core adoption. But what got Crossin so worked up about Common Core in the first place? In 2011 her then-eight-year-old daughter brought home a math problem that struck Crossin as odd not because of the problem itself but because of the fact that despite getting the mathematical answer correct, Crossin’s daughter received only one point out of three. Why? Because she did not provide the correct reason for how she knew that a 448 foot bridge was longer than a 407 foot bridge. Crossin’s daughter answered said that she knew it was because 448 is a larger number than 407. The Common Core-aligned textbook being used in the classroom, however, wanted the student to compare the numbers in the ones, tens and hundreds columns individually and determine that 448 is larger than 407 that way.
From that one problem launched Crossin’s crusade, now formalized in the group Hoosiers Against Common Core. The group’s purpose, according to its web site, is to bring “together concerned people from all points of the political spectrum in order to effect legislation resulting in the reversal of its [CCSS’] adoption.” Why? “For some, the idea of violating states’ rights is important. To others, they oppose it strictly from a quality perspective. A majority oppose it because it stifles curriculum development and teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.”
Therein lies the problem, though. The CCSS does not stifle curriculum development. It may well serve as an excuse for those developing curriculum or those adopting it, but the fact that the CCSS makes a convenient excuse does not make it the actual problem. Furthermore, the CCSS does not “negate teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.” The reality is that teacher autonomy is, always has been, and almost surely always will be restricted by the fact that teachers have supervisors at various levels above them to whom they must report. Teachers, therefore, cannot use whatever books they want as the textbooks for their classrooms. That is not unique to CCSS and it will not go away if CCSS is trashed. There could be legitimate and healthy debate about the autonomy of public schools to exercise autonomy in textbook selection, but that is a debate that precedes CCSS and will still be around after CCSS, as well. In other words, CCSS has served to get Crossin’s attention, and the attention of others, but what they are really worked up about is a more deeply-rooted problem with public education (or any education aligning itself with any system that restricts its autonomy, since Crossin’s daughter was at a Catholic school).
See, when Crossin questioned the principal of her daughter’s school about the bridge problem and the approach used in the new textbooks, the principal told Crossin that the school had no choice but to use the books because they aligned with the CCSS. That is not true, though, at least not entirely. Whether or not that specific school had the autonomy to select its own texts I do not know. I do not know how textbook selection works at that school in particular or in Indiana in general. What I do know, though, is that the implication that the textbook in question was the only one aligned with CCSS and therefore had to be used is not true. There are many textbooks that align with the Common Core standards, and their number is growing. Furthermore, the math standards established by the CCSS provide plenty of room within the guidelines they establish for discretion in textbook selection.
The CCSS standards for mathematics begin with eight Standards for Mathematical Practice. What are those eight standards? That students should (1) make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; (2) reason abstractly and quantitatively; (3) construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; (4) model with mathematics; (5) use appropriate tools strategically; (6) attend to precision; (7) look for and make use of structure; and (8) look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. I am no mathematician, but I fail to see anything in those eight standards that should raise the hackles of any parent or educator.
To the specific problem that first made Crossin aware of the CCSS I would say this… The problem is ideally suited to address the second of the eight standards above. Crossin’s daughter provided the correct answer as to which bridge was longer, and her reasoning clearly demonstrated quantitative reasoning. She may not have accomplished the level of precision or abstract reasoning that the textbook’s authors wanted, but that would be a problem with the way in which the problem was written, not with the CCSS in general. It also highlights a problem with the teacher who graded the problem; it makes no sense to provide a student with only one-third of the possible credit when the student provides the correct answer!
Even when looking deeper into the specific standards for specific subjects within the field of math the standards are emphasizing only the facts and skills that students should master, such as this standard within the Geometry area: “Derive the equation of a circle of given center and radius using the Pythagorean Theorem; complete the square to find the center and radius of a circle given by an equation” (CCSS.Math.Content.HSG-GPE.A.1). This is, to my mind, a fairly basic standard that any Geometry student should be able to meet, CCSS or not.
The Hoosiers Against Common Core includes a gushing endorsement of a piece written in the New York Times in June “defending traditional mathematics.” That article, by an associate professor of philosophy and a professor of mathematics, asserts that most math instruction today is on “numerical reasoning” rather than the “more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.” However, the CCSS do not discount algorithms or the mastery of them. They do expect math teachers to explain to students the reasons why algorithms work, and they expect students to grasp the reasons, but this is not a knock on Common Core. As the Times article points out, this is not even new to math! The article states, “Although every decade has its bad textbooks, anyone who takes the time to look at a range of math books from the 1960s, 70s or 80s will see that it is a myth that traditional math programs routinely overlooked the importance of thoughtful pedagogy and taught by rote.”
In fact, the third grade CCSS standards specifically state that students should be able to use “algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” In other words, exactly what the Times article argues for and exactly what Hoosiers Against Common Core seems to decry about the CCSS.
So if the CCSS are not the problem, then where are we now? Oh, we are back at bad textbooks. The simply reality is that good textbooks, good teachers and good schools have been doing what the CCSS now outlines for years. The most effective teachers will find almost nothing in the CCSS that will alarm them because they have already been doing what the CCSS asks them to do. The best textbooks will require little if any adjustments because they already do what the CCSS ask them to do. Contrary to what anyone may say, the CCSS simply do not require specific textbooks! So the uproar over the CCSS is really over a much broader, and much deeper, issue…one I will continue to explore next time.