Common Core’s Revenge

, Spencer Irvine, 1 Comment

The Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank, released a new study, “The Revenge of K-12: How Common Core and the New SAT Lower College Standards in the U.S.” to help parents, teachers, and policymakers understand the problems with the Common Core State Standards.

Common Core State Standards

Authors Richard Phelps and Common Core Validation Committee member R. James Milgram go in-depth on the background of the Common Core standards and the qualifications (or lack thereof) of the writers of the standards. Milgram, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Stanford University, was one of five members of the validation committee who refused to sign onto the standards and to endorse it.

The validation committee included “four non-U.S. citizens (an Australian, Englishman, German, and a Taiwanese), and R. James Milgram was the only mathematician in the committee and the only member with a Ph.D. from outside a school of education.” The committee could not demand changes in the drafts of the standards after a certain point, which Milgram said was after he tried to raise the math standards. The authors state, “In the end, committee members could only sign or refuse to sign a letter affirming that the CCS were research-based and internationally benchmarked. The letter was signed by 24 of the final 29 members.”

However, Phelps and Migram say the project’s intention was “to look attractive to both education schools and content experts” to get approval. Instead of being a good set of education standards, it was a political compromise.

Also, Common Core descends from the “dismal results from their key predecessors – the allegedly higher-order, more authentic, performance, based tests administered in Maryland (MSPAP), California (CLAS), and Kentucky (KIRIS) in the 1990s.” Why did these older tests fail? There were too many instances of “unreliable scores; volatile test score trends; secrecy of items and forms; and absence of individual scores in some cases…large expenditures of time…[and] inconsistent grading.” Common Core revives principles from the controversial and failed 1989 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics curriculum, which led to a rebellion of California parents and leaders of the high tech industry due to its inadequacies. The new Common Core tests, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), are the latest reincarnations of the previous tests.

Why all the outrage in the past? Parents were wary and unhappy with “fuzzy math” proposed by those standards, which is why there is opposition to Common Core. Common Core pushes “fuzzy math,” where there is a substantial overreliance on calculators or finger counting for simple math problems and no teaching of multiplication or long division. The Common Core standards from kindergarten to seventh grade are 90% better than before because the previous standards were “of the abysmal quality of the vast majority of the previous state standards.”

Under Common Core, eighth graders do not need to finish Algebra I courses and instead learn rudimentary geometry, which Milgram and Phelps call “very close to an approach tested in the former Soviet Union in the late 1970’s and early 1980s.” And, from grades 9-12, geometry development and teaching is just as experimental, teaching trigonometric standards typically reserved for trigonometry classes and not developing math skills beyond Algebra II.

Why the disconnect in standards? The writers of the Common Core were inexperienced and many had connections to the Gates Foundation.

Jason Zimba, one of the writers of the math curriculum, is a retired physics and mathematics professor at Bennington College with a Ph.D. in mathematical sciences. But, Zimba had no experience writing educational standards. He had worked with Common Core English language arts writer, David Coleman, at Student Assessment Partners. Another math writer, William McCallum, worked as a consultant for Achieve, Inc., a primary designer of Common Core, and was a math professor at the University of Arizona with a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Phil Daro worked with Zimba and McCallum on Common Core math standards, but his connections as the recipient of several Gates Foundation grants and who worked for the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE). NCCE was headed by a Common Core reviewing group member by the name of Marc Tucker. Daro was an English major undergraduate whose only background in mathematics was a brief stint as a middle school mathematics teacher who coauthored a 2013 report which concluded that algebra was necessary for community college readiness, not overall college readiness.

The English standards had similar levels of intrigue, where standards writer David Coleman “had no teaching experience in K-12 or above,” has both an undergraduate and master’s degree in philosophy, yet is currently the president of the College Board. Coleman was quoted as saying to a crowd at the University of Pittsburgh in 2011, “We’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards.” He admitted in a separate speech, “I probably spend a little more time on literacy because as weak as my qualifications are there, in math they’re even more desperate in their lacking.”

Two other writers of the English language arts standards were Susan Pimentel, whose only teaching experience was in the Head Start program and as a consultant to Achieve, Inc.’s work on the American Diploma Project, and James Patterson, a journalism undergrad and a staff member of ACT specializing in language arts, who had taught at secondary school level. None had worked on writing education standards.

Coleman, now president of the College Board, hired former rival and competitor at ACT Cyndie Schmieser, who helped Coleman eliminate high standards such as penalties for guessing on tests, making the writing test optional for test-takers, and allowing students to choose which test score to send to college. Also, school districts are saving ACT and the College Board money by administering the tests themselves. Coleman has also hinted at changing Advanced Placement, or AP, high school courses and their curriculum.

The authors of the study point out that achievement and aptitude are two different measures and Common Core does not take that into account. The U.S. already struggles with its current educational system, but does not try to adjust as their European or East Asian counterparts, who cater to students’ strengths and offer technical schooling. Instead, American students continue to drop out of school if they don’t make it to college and are left without an alternative.

With the college-or-bust American mentality, we see “only 2 percent of STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]-intending students whose first college course is pre-calculus or lower, ever graduate with a major in STEM areas today.” Students are inadequately prepared by not completing Algebra II or calculus classes before graduating from high school. Statistics show that 7 percent of students with only Algebra 1 education background obtained 4-year degrees in 1992, and while in 1982, students who completed Algebra 2 had a 46 percent chance of obtaining a bachelor’s degree. But, in 1992 it dropped to 39 percent.

The original article mistakenly said one of the authors is named Robert Phelps, but the author’s name is Richard Phelps. It is reflected in the updated version.