From Al Cuoco, commentary on Common Core

Over the last few months, the Common Core State Standards have hit the headlines in a big way, with commentaries from educators, elected officials, columnists, and even talk-show personalities. Some argue that the Core is rotten, a liberal tactic to usurp local control. Others express faith in the Core’s ability to transform K-12 education, providing a lever needed to budge the stubborn inertia that stalls improvement. Sides have formed and the simmering rhetoric has come to a full, rolling boil.

As a former high school mathematics teacher — 25 years in the Massachusetts Public Schools — and a current curriculum developer and teacher educator, I’ve read the mounting criticism of and praise for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics with great interest. Much of the criticism that I read is oversimplification; some of it exhibits a genuine ignorance of the daily work of teaching and learning. Very little shows familiarity with the actual content of the standards, and much of it is removed from a focus on the two groups that matter most: teachers and students.

When I first heard of the Common Core — I supplied some background research to the writing team — I saw a promise that it might become one of many tools to help us tackle some of the pervasive problems that have plagued our schools for generations. The authors delivered on that promise. And there’s one problem in particular for which these mathematics standards hold great potential: closing the vast gap between school mathematics and mathematics as a scientific discipline.

Many adults have suffered through school mathematics. At the high school level, it’s a disconnected zoo of special-purpose methods and meaningless topics that most mathematicians wouldn’t recognize. There’s the “box method” for setting up equations. There’s the “y = mx+b” method for finding equations of a line through two points. And there are many more examples of paraphernalia that has no existence outside of school. There’s also incredible flatness: everything is as important as everything else. I’ve seen a half-period wasted discussing whether or not the positive y-axis is in the first quadrant.

Common Core calls for something different. Its content standards are devoid of schoolish nonsense and free of the standards-speak that has made so many state documents unreadable. Anyone who uses mathematics professionally can read the Common Core and recognize what’s there, a direct path from the mathematics students learn in school to the mathematics used in so many fields today. There is a practice of mathematics, just as there is a practice of medicine and a practice of teaching. Before the advent of the Common Core, that practice was largely invisible in state standards documents.

The Common Core reflects the reality that the discipline of mathematics is as much a web of habits of mind — key ways of thinking employed by proficient users of mathematics — as it is a vast edifice of results. And, unlike current state standards, the Common Core specifies Standards for Mathematical Practice that give us a lens through which we can look at the content standards. The Standards for Mathematical Practice can help bring some desperately needed coherence and parsimony to school mathematics. The Standards for Mathematical Practice are not, as some claim, the “most important part” of the Common Core. Rather, as Jason Zimba, one of the lead writers for the Common Core, puts it: “Practices are an engine for focusing, and a reward for doing so.”

Because the centuries-old practice of mathematics has not appeared in an explicit way until now, the Standards for Mathematical Practice are a source of confusion among educators and school administrators. In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has addressed this challenge head on: it partnered with our group at Education Development Center to create a 45-hour course designed to provide experience with and examples for how the practice of mathematics can work in concert with specific content.

The course revisits everyday content that has traditionally been difficult to teach and learn, and it develops that content with a focus on practices such as using precision, making viable arguments, and abstracting from examples. These habits of mind are essential to mathematics outside of school, and they provide teachers and students with tools to make school mathematics a coherent and sensible body of knowledge. Teams of teachers who have participated in the course are excited about mathematics and are now teaching it around and outside Massachusetts. Most importantly, we’ve seen that debates about the value of the Common Core disappear when teachers are immersed in concrete methods for bringing the standards to life.

So, there is promise. By raising the practice of mathematics to the same level of importance as results, I see hope that students will no longer be subjected to the numbing stranglehold of school mathematics. But Common Core is not, in itself, able to transform education. The problems go deeper than standards—they go down to the kind of mathematics teachers learn in their preparation and professional development. They go down to the oppressive working conditions that encourage quick fixes, shallow treatments of mathematics, and a profession that feels under siege. They go down to tyrannical assessments of low-level skills that cripple any chance of a coherent approach to school mathematics. And they go down to the outdated foundations on which schooling was built that advantage certain groups over others. Common Core is our first step, a blueprint for what school mathematics can be. Everyone involved in education and policy should get past this first step. Stop quibbling about the standards themselves — they are a refreshing and positive first step — and mobilize to focus resources on the rest of the picture.

BRIEF BIO INFO

Al Cuoco, Distinguished Scholar at Education Development Center, Inc. in Waltham, Mass., taught high school mathematics in the Woburn, Mass. public schools for 24 years. He received his doctorate in mathematics from Brandeis University. He is a widely published author and presenter on issues such as effective mathematics curriculum and mathematical habits of mind. He is the lead author on the 9-12 CME Project mathematics curriculum, an NSF-funded program founded on mathematical habits of mind, deeply interconnected with the Standards for Mathematical Practice.

The author thanks Eden Badertscher for our many discussions and her deep insights into the ideas in this essay.