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Straight Up Conversation: Common Core Guru Jason Zimba

You didn't think the ferment around Common Core could keep building? Hah! Prepare for several more years of increasing wackiness. In the middle of it all is Jazon Zimba, founding principal of Student Achievement Partners (SAP) and the man who is leading SAP after David Coleman went off to head up the College Board. SAP is a major player in Common Core implementation, especially with the aid of $18 million in support from the GE Foundation. Zimba was the lead writer on the Common Core mathematics standards. He earned his doctorate in mathematical physics from Berkeley, co-founded the Grow Network with Coleman, and previously taught physics and math at Bennington College. He's a private dude who lives up in New England and has not been part of the Beltway policy conversation. I'd never met Zimba, until we had the chance to sit down last week.

Now, I think readers know that I'm of two minds when it comes to the Common Core. On the one hand, it does have the potential to bring coherence to the education space, shed light on who's doing what, raise the bar for instructional materials and teacher prep, and so forth. On the other, there are about 5,000 ways the whole thing could go south or turn into a stifling bureaucratic monstrosity-and one rarely goes wrong when betting against our ability to do massive, complex edu-reforms well. Given all this, like many of you, I'm carefully watching how all this is playing out. In that spirit, I enjoyed meeting Zimba; found him smart and engaging; and thought you all might be equally interested in hearing from him. In particular, I'd love to hear how much Zimba's responses do or don't assuage various concerns about the Common Core. Here's what he had to say (in an email interview that followed our conversation):

Rick Hess: So how did you get involved with the Common Core?
Jason Zimba: I was named to the writing team for the Common Core State Standards after I'd participated in an earlier group which the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) had convened to produce the "College and Career Readiness Standards" in 2009. At the time, I was a faculty member in physics and mathematics at Bennington College. But I'd had a lot of experience working with math standards prior to academia because I had co-founded an education technology company, and I'd never really stopped thinking about those issues. In 2008 I co-authored a paper with David Coleman about standards for the Carnegie Commission. But I didn't just want to write a position paper-I wanted to help address some of the problems we had identified.

RH: Exactly what is Student Achievement Partners (SAP)? And how did you get involved with SAP?
JZ: We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping states and districts implement the standards. We work with teachers to develop implementation tools and offer them free on our website, www.achievethecore.org. I founded the organization in 2007 with Sue Pimentel and David Coleman, so I've been involved from the start. Along with our team, we've been traveling the country working with, and listening to, teachers and others who are bringing the shifts into their classrooms.

RH: What was your role when it came to drafting the Common Core math standards?
JZ: I need to give a long answer here, because it was an intensive process that involved a lot of folks. The writing team, consisting of William McCallum, Phil Daro, and myself, worked within a working group of experts including state math directors, mathematicians, education researchers, and teachers. Drafts went out to all the states periodically, which led to mountains of feedback. A feedback committee, a validation committee, and educator organizations brought in by CCSSO and NGA such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also commented on drafts and offered a lot of feedback. I remember when the draft was still very rough, the American Federation of Teachers put Bill and me in a room with a group of practicing teachers. They came from across the country with their drafts covered in red ink. They weren't gentle with us, but we made a lot of progress that day. And later, of course, there was the release of the public draft - after that, we got something like 10,000 public comments from individuals and organizations.

So if you ask what role the other writers and I played, it was certainly about writing and taking first cuts at things. But it was even more about reading, listening, revising, and finding ways to problem solve and reconcile all the different signals. During this process, we went back to the evidence continually -- the available research, the best of previous state standards, the major reports, and international comparisons.

RH: What are one or two things you're most proud of when it comes to the Common Core math standards?
JZ: One of the most important things we needed to deliver was a focused, coherent picture of math -- with fewer topics in each grade accomplished in greater depth instead of the mile-wide, inch-deep approach we often see today. We did that, despite the challenges of preserving focus. People kept saying, "We love the focus of these standards! Now if you could just add this one thing...." It wasn't easy for the writers to hold the line. We couldn't have done it without a uniquely designed development process -- one that privileged evidence and argument.

I have to say that when the research by William Schmidt and Richard Houang came out recently comparing the Common Core with high performing countries, I opened the document with some trepidation. After all that work, how had we really done? Did we actually succeed? In a word, I think the answer is yes. The close agreement they found between the Common Core and standards of high performing countries, closer agreement than any previous set of state standards, is something that everybody involved with this effort can be proud of.

RH: What are one or two things that give you the most pause when it comes to the standards?
JZ: In my work with SAP thus far, I've seen some misinterpretations out there. At the end of the day that means we weren't always as clear as we needed to be. I've heard stories about kindergarteners being asked to do unrealistically advanced work, whereas we actually put some very careful limits on what kindergarteners should be expected to do based on feedback from early childhood experts.

Another issue arises in connection with the Standards for Mathematical Practice, which describe aspects of mathematical expertise, such as being able to make and critique mathematical arguments. The fact that the practice standards are actual standards (not just framing text) is important, but it's created some puzzles for implementation. In some places, the practices have taken up a lot of the oxygen in implementation efforts, and there is good and bad to that. On the plus side, I do think the typical math classroom in our country needs to become a much more academic place, with more discussion, argument, and counter-argument. Grade-level appropriate, of course - elementary school isn't graduate school! And states and districts are right to attend to those factors in teaching. But I sometimes worry that talking about the practice standards can be a way to avoid talking about focus and specific math content. Until we see fewer topics and a strong focus on arithmetic in elementary grades, we really aren't seeing the standards being implemented.

RH: How do you respond to critics who have argued that one problem with the math standards is that they don't address algebra until high school?
JZ: It is incorrect to say that algebra isn't covered until high school. There is a great deal of algebra in the 8th grade standards. For example, students in grade 8 are expected to solve two simultaneous equations with two unknowns. I don't see a lack of rigor there. The standards actually invest heavily in algebra because of the way they focus so strongly on the prerequisites for algebra in the elementary grades.

I actually think the questions about algebra are better formulated as questions about acceleration. How will kids who are ready for advanced work accelerate to reach courses like calculus during high school? But those are questions for policy, not for standards. The standards don't speak to this issue. Decisions about acceleration and ability grouping are still the purview of local districts, just as they've always been. For example, I've seen where the state of Massachusetts has provided some interesting guidance for districts showing several different models for acceleration, all of them ending at calculus in the senior year of high school.

RH: How confident are you that teacher preparation programs are ready and able to alter their practice in light of the Common Core?
JZ: There is a long tradition of mathematicians partnering with education schools and local districts to enhance the mathematical education of teachers. The first thing I ever read about this was Richard Askey's 1999 article in American Educator. The National Math Panel also made recommendations to improve teacher preparation in mathematics. But the fact that mathematicians have been working on the mathematical preparation of teachers for so long is really a good-news/bad-news story. The Common Core could bring some much-needed scale and impetus for change here.

I've heard about some of the alternative certification programs basing their training on the Common Core, and that makes sense because these programs tend to have national reach. As for traditional universities, I assume change will happen faster in some places but slowly in most. I would love to see some creative thinking about this from the universities themselves, but also from the states and districts who are their clients.

RH: With a ton of instructional materials billing themselves as aligned with the Common Core, how do you think schools and school districts will separate the wheat from the chaff? What's being done to help them on this count?
JZ: This is one of the most common challenges we see. People are working hard to implement the standards with fidelity, and it is important to help them select quality aligned materials. An important effort on this front is the Publishers' Criteria for instructional materials, developed by the standards authors and available on CCSSO's site www.corestandards.org. The criteria aim to show how publishers can work toward alignment and how customers can judge those efforts. We've been running some trainings on the criteria, and we plan to do more of that in the coming year. We have some great partners in this work - including CCSSO, NGA, the National Association of State Boards of Education, Achieve, and the Council of the Great City Schools at the district level.

RH: What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to the Common Core math standards, and how would you respond to it?
JZ: One of the misconceptions I've seen out there in various discussions is the idea that these standards fall neatly on one side or the other of the "math wars." By "math wars" I mean a set of debates about such issues as whether children should know their times tables by heart, or whether they should use algorithms to compute their sums and differences. In fact, the math community has been developing consensus on many of these issues over the past few years, and the standards reflect that. That is why the standards ended up strong on fluency with algorithms, strong on concepts, and strong on applications. They are a picture of fewer things done well. But all some people want to know is, "which side are these on??"

As far as issues like the multiplication table and fluency are concerned, the standards explicitly require these things, so the real concern about rigor is not the standards themselves but rather how faithfully they are implemented.

RH: What's your take on the state of the Common Core math assessments? How concerned are you about potential problems, delays, or fears that they'll give insufficient attention to "hard" math skills?
JZ: I think both consortia are passionate about moving "beyond the bubble" and making better math and ELA/literacy tests. It isn't an easy job. From my perspective, of course, alignment to the standards is critical. The tests have to make the shifts the standards are asking for, or else the textbooks won't and teachers can't. My colleagues and I have been providing help and advice to the consortia about this from early in the process. If the assessments that get produced faithfully reflect the focus, coherence, and rigor of the standards, then "hard" skills will not be neglected. They are prominent in the standards themselves.

RH: You've noted that the Common Core math standards should evolve over time with evidence and experience. Of course, skeptics fear this whole thing will calcify into another bureaucratic document. What will it take to ensure that the standards are governed in the fashion that you hope?
JZ: Standards shouldn't change frequently, but over a prudent timeframe they should evolve based on what we learn from research and from educators in the field during implementation. For example, after many years of that kind of process, Singapore now considers their math topics and grade placements to be fairly well settled. This means that for the time being, they can focus entirely on improving the depth and delivery of the content. We aren't there yet, though we did have the advantage of modeling the Common Core on the standards of high performing countries. And with so many states now working toward the same goals, there should be an opportunity to gather more research data than we've been able to in the past. The assessment consortia can also greatly enlarge our knowledge base about what does and doesn't matter for postsecondary success. So in the best view of this, I think we're taking our first halting steps toward a functioning feedback loop with student achievement at the center.

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