Research & Commentary: Common Core Math Standards

Published October 3, 2014

The United States scores below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in mathematics literacy, behind 29 other nations, predominantly from Europe. Even Massachusetts – the best-performing state – only manages to tie with Germany for 10th and is vastly outperformed by several East Asian city-states and other special jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which are similar to Massachusetts in population.

Common Core State Standards, a set of requirements for what elementary and secondary school children should know in each grade in math and English, have been said to establish “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked” standards that should improve ability in these subject areas. Such standards have been implemented in every state except Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, but they have been repealed in Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

Stanford professor James Milgram, the only professional mathematician on the Common Core validation committee, found Common Core standards substantially lower than those of high-performing nations: “While the difference between these standards and those of the top states at the end of eighth grade is perhaps somewhat more than one year, the difference is more like two years when compared to the expectations of the high achieving countries – particularly most of the nations of East Asia.”

Common Core proponents argue the standards will yield a deeper understanding of math for students by using more pictorial questions and requiring students to provide elaborate explanations of their processes for solving problems. Several math scholars, however, contend this strategy makes simple content appear artificially difficult and can backfire by driving capable students away from math at an early age.

Although Common Core proponents note high-achieving countries have national standards, so do most of the lowest-achieving countries. A study by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution found no correlation between state standards and student achievement.

Legislators should repeal Common Core, and they can replace it with standards modeled on those of high-achieving states such as Massachusetts, but they should also recognize the supposed need for government-created standards is dubious. A free market has its own standardizing mechanisms. Reformers can help create a more freedom in the education market by allocating funds toward parents and providing schools greater autonomy while increasing accountability.

The following documents provide additional information about Common Core math standards.


Program for International Student Assessment: Mathematics Literacy
The United States is ranked behind 29 nations, mostly from Asia and Europe, in a prominent international assessment of mathematics literacy.

The Common Core: A Poor Choice For States
In this Heartland Institute Policy Brief, Heartland Research Fellow Joy Pullmann reveals some major weaknesses of Common Core, using a host of footnoted evidence. The program represents a major centralization of control over curriculum, contrary to the American tradition of decentralized control and funding. Instead of being “world class,” the standards represent a significant step back from what experts say are the standards America really needs. And they are tied to large expansions of data collection on students and erosion of privacy rights.

Making Math Standards Even Worse
Marina Ratner, professor emerita of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley and member of the National Academy of Sciences, describes her first encounter with Common Core and its math standards. Ratner says she and many other academic mathematicians found Common Core to be a step backwards from California’s previous standards, and she says she was horrified by the illustrative counting exercises that make simple concepts “artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper.”

James Shuls: Common Core Ruined My Son’s Math
James Shuls, a father, former first-grade teacher, and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, describes what happened when his son’s school sent him a letter stating the school would implement a new way of teaching students how to solve math problems and that he should discourage his son from solving them any other way. This usurpation of parental control is an example of why we need greater school choice, Shuls writes.

A Common-Sense Approach to the Common Core Math Standards
Barry Garelick, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee and current public school math teacher, responds to an article in The New York Times Magazine that argues in favor of “reform math” teaching techniques, which require more explanation and use more illustrative representations. Garelick says these strategies make simple problems unnecessarily difficult and point to reform math’s poor track record as proof it will not remedy U.S. students’ poor test scores.

The Common Core Math Standards
The Common Core math standards are longer, less demanding, more confusing, and more repetitive than the best standards being used today, says former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman in an interview for the journal Education Next. The standards are mediocre nationally and internationally. They drop essential math content such as converting fractions to decimals, and they delay algebra until high school, whereas high-achieving countries and states expect students to do algebra in grade 8. The authors of the Common Core math standards had little experience constructing standards, Wurman notes, and it shows. The standards consistently put students behind international bests by a grade or two in the elementary years and a full two years behind in high school.

Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards
Neal McCluskey, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, examines national curriculum standards in this February 2010 analysis. He found setting high standards and getting students to achieve them is very difficult. Successful education reform, he writes, will require going in the opposite direction of the top-down approach taken by national standards, instead moving toward a free-market system that produces a mix of high standards, accountability, and flexibility essential to achieving optimal educational outcomes.

How Well Are American Students Learning?
A series of data analyses from the Brookings Institution finds no link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” said the latest such report. Based on every state’s experience with standards and corresponding tests over the past 30 years, the study authors see no evidence to believe Common Core will improve student achievement.


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