Fault Lines: The Common Core in California

Peter Wood

Professor Bill Honig posted a lengthy, thoughtful comment on my recent article about the Common Core. I am grateful for Professor Honig’s response.  The Common Core is a large topic and having the considered views of someone as well placed to understand it as the Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission is invaluable. 

Mr. Honig has long experience with the schools in California, having served for ten years as Superintendent of Public Instruction (1983-1993) and now serving on the California State Board of Education.  He is also the president of CORE, a group that that provides “implementation support services” in pre-K-12 education reform.  And, as he indicates, he has been a member of the NAS for a long time. 

For all these reasons, I take his strictures very seriously.  We disagree on some points, however, that reflect differences in approach and emphasis.  For readers who are coming into this conversation late, it began when I published two articles—one on the new changes in the SATs, the other on how the Common Core relates to college admissions.  Those articles prompted a more wide-ranging rebuttal from Sol Stern.  I replied (at length) to Sol Stern’s rebuttal.  And Mr. Honig has now replied to my reply. 

It seems to me that the major differences between Mr. Honig and me on the Mathematics Standards has to do with the related questions of the right level of difficulty appropriate for mathematics instruction in the eighth grade and the acceptable level of student success with that material.  Mr. Honig acknowledges that, as I wrote, 60 percent of California students currently take algebra in eighth grade.  (Actually, I have now seen more recent numbers that figure at 68 percent, up from less than 32 percent a decade ago.)  The Common Core replaces algebra in the 8th grade with algebra in the 9th grade.  Mr. Honig qualifies this in two ways:

  1.  Only 30 percent of students who take algebra in the 8th grade “actually learn it.”
  2. A third to a half of the content of the algebra “in 9th grade algebra courses is now required in the Common Core standards for all students in 8th grade.”

As for Point A, I guess a lot depends on what Mr. Honig means by “actually learn it.”  The figures from the California Department of Education that I am looking at show 77 percent of students passing the course, and 55 percent of students earning As or Bs. 

Point B is a bit confusing.  Is the meaning that the Common Core assigns to 8th grade a third to a half the algebraic content of courses that currently serve the 40 percent of California students who don’t encounter algebra until 9th grade? 

In any case, I take Mr. Honig’s larger point to be that the Common Core does indeed include algebraic ideas in the eighth grade.  Defenders of the Common Core have been urging this point for some time. It rests on the idea that doing algebra has many components and mathematical prerequisites, some of which can be anticipated at earlier stages. 

There is no real disagreement between Mr. Honig and me on how the Common Core proceeds. Rather, we disagree on what the procedures mean. Mr. Honig is focused on putting into place a mathematics curriculum that helps the greatest number of students “pass”—and “actually learn”—the proffered material at each grade level.  He sets aside “the small percentage of students” who seek to qualify for four-year colleges and become math or science majors. 

I don’t set those students aside.  To the contrary, those are the students I am most concerned about.  And, to be clear, we do not know who those are; nor do the students in eighth grade know themselves whether they have the talent and interest to reach to the level of excelling in college STEM fields.  The Common Core drastically lowers the odds that they will find out.  It does that by consigning all the public school students to a much thinner, simplified math curriculum.

Mr. Honig assures me that California is taking steps to avoid consigning the more talented students to the Common Core’s not-so-demanding level.  He writes:

California has devised a three part strategy to accomplish this. Allow acceleration for those who can profit by taking the new beefed-up ninth grade course in eighth grade, get almost all students to learn common core material through eighth grade so they have a better chance to pass high school math, and for those needing extra help, either slow the sequence down or provide extra support. Algebra 1 pass rates are currently shockingly low in this country and common core mathematics progressions should help alleviate this problem.

The 77 percent passage rate I noted above doesn’t strike me as “shockingly low,” but be that as it may, I’d welcome the steps Mr. Honig describes above.  I have heard some skeptical remarks about this from others who doubt that California will actually execute this plan, so I guess this comes down to wait-and-see.

Lying way back at the origins of the Common Core is a document that I have seldom seen referred to in the current debate.  In 2007, David Coleman and Jason Zimba published “Math and Science Standards That Are Fewer, Clearer, Higher to Raise Achievement at All Levels.”  It was a white paper prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  In it they laid out more explicitly than subsequent Common Core documents do the deep rationale for what became the Common Core’s approach to mathematics.  Their points were:

  1. The teaching of mathematics in K-12 should be matched to “pragmatic analysis” of what people actually need when they enter the workforce.  We shouldn’t waste time and effort teaching math that people won’t use later on.
  2. Mathematics standards should be chosen to “dramatically” raise “the number and diversity of students performing at the highest levels.”  To accomplish this would require lowering the definition of “the highest levels.”  The air of rhetorical trickery is immediately recognizable in this.  If we define “mountains” to be elevations of one hundred feet above sea level, lots more people can proudly declare themselves as living on mountain tops.  What drove this chicanery was the search for a shortcut to solving the achievement gap between various ethnic groups. 
  3. They pressed the motto, “standards that are fewer, clearer, and higher.”  The motto itself requires so much unpacking that it hardly passes its own test.  “Fewer” refers to both the profusion of state standards in different states and to the density of standards within states. “Clearer” refers to the claim that existing standards (in 2007) were confusing to both teachers and students.  “Higher” is the really mischievous word in the trinity, since it doesn’t mean more rigorous, more advanced, more complex, more comprehensive, or more substantively anything.  Rather it seems to mean “easier.”  The “higher” standards called for in this report are the standards that will enable a higher percentage of students, especially minority students, to meet them. 

In other words, the Common Core takes its origins in what President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  Let’s not set a single high standard that many students will fail to achieve.  Let’s set a single low standard that many will achieve and that we can sell to the public as a “higher standard” in a brand new sense. 

Let me emphasize that I am summarizing a twenty-page report by two of the architects of the Common Core, and not Mr. Honig’s views on the matter.  I don’t know exactly what Mr. Honig thinks about these issues.  He has, however, adopted some of the language and some of the logic of David Coleman and Jason Zimba’s 2007 manifesto.  (Zimba, a professor of mathematics at Bennington College, is the Common Core’s primary author of the Mathematics Standards.)  If our primary concern should be to boost the numbers of students who pass 8th grade mathematics, then the Common Core could well be the ticket.  If our primary concern should be fostering the intellectual achievement of all students to the highest levels they are capable of attaining, then the Common Core is probably not the route forward.

I have no wish to be unfair to proponents of the Common Core.  Concern for the underdog is an admirable part of American thought and feeling.  And we don’t serve the country very well by putting in place a system of standards that dooms the majority to failure.  The key is to find a way to challenge everyone to do his best and to recognize and advance the challenges to those whose best is higher than average.  Common Core might lend itself to such adaptation in some schools, but it doesn’t right now look like it will—though Mr. Honig says California has a plan to do just that.  The trouble is that the Common Core is keyed to standardized testing and students who veered off its prescribed path would be troublesome for schools, teachers, and test results.

Back to that 2007 document.  Coleman and Zimba wrote: 

A fewer/clearer/higher approach should help our nation’s students compete better once they enter the workforce. Instead of a weak recall of a vaster terrain, perhaps it is more effective to have true mastery of the essential parts of math and scientific thinking, so that our citizens will readily apply them to jobs we cannot even yet envision today.

“True mastery of the essential parts” is a nice way of saying, “Let’s narrow our expectations.”  Is that truly in the nation’s interest?  I ask not as a rhetorical question.  If the essential part was learning how to use our lungs to breathe, that would be more important than trying to teach everyone the “vaster terrain” of singing opera, performing yoga, yodeling, and producing stage whispers.  There are essentials that are really essential.  I am not sure how to apply this to mathematics.  Humans can get along pretty well with rudimentary mathematics, even in our complex post-industrial society.  “Essential” in this instance probably means learning to count and how to add and subtract with a calculator.  Is that really what we want for the coming generations?  That question is indeed rhetorical.  We all want something higher than that.  The real question is how much higher.  

Mr. Honig argues that Common Core math is “benchmarked” against international standards.  I’ve seen this argument before, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is true.  It seems to be more of a talking point that proponents of the Common Core have come to accept without asking too many questions.  If I am wrong, I will gladly admit it upon seeing the benchmarking studies.

Mr. Honig’s “point 5” is that, “The Common Core Standards do not shortchange literature.”  He repeats much of the Common Core language that praises the teaching of literature, but this is definitely one of those instances where the proof is in the pudding.  The Common Core's main document demands increased attention to "informational" text in the English class.  The ten standards for reading instruction are for informational texts.   There are only 9 standards for literary texts in the English class from K to grade 12.  That means a huge decrease in the study of literary texts.  

Mr. Honig writes that the Common Core’s emphasis on 70 percent “informational texts” in high school English “can be easily met if material from history and science is included.”  Unfortunately that is not how the Common Core will work. Its guide for English teachers puts the 70 percent “informational text” requirement inside the English classes.  English teachers understand that the college-readiness test in ELA/reading in grade 11 will hold them responsible for scores on “informational” reading passages, no matter what readings they assign.  That means, assign Billy Budd if you wish, but be sure students learn to read it as an “informational text.”

Let me conclude here by repeating that I very much welcome Mr. Honig’s response to my article, just as I welcomed Sol Stern’s criticisms.  We need more—much more—informed debate on the Common Core.  This exchange serves an important public purpose and I hope it is noticed by both sides in the ongoing effort to figure out how best to reform our schools.

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