When discussing the Common Core State Standards, perhaps the politics surrounding it can sometimes overshadow the most important question: How do they help improve student achievement?
Two lead writers of the standards in English/language arts and math, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, tried to provide answers at a July 10 discussion at the Education Commission of the States' policy forum here in Atlanta. Coleman, who will take over as the College Board president Oct. 15 and co-founded the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners with Zimba, also provided a warning to those in the audience at a discussion: "Expect outrage."
The source of the outrage, Coleman said, will be those who are used to seeing the kind of math activities in 5th grade, for example, that focus on "data" but in practice deal with little more than counting and making bar charts and graphs that amount to a "fake version of developing young scientists."
By contrast, the common core math standards would adopt a "teach less, learn more" approach identified by Zimba that he and Coleman said would ensure mastery of truly important skills. One exaple: making sure students can demonstrate comprehension of and the ability to deal with fractions, a key algebraic skill that in many ways is the most demanding kind of math. What many view as "basic" math is, in fact, the most important and rich, they said.
"Archimedes failed to invent place value. It took thousands of years," Zimba said.
Zimba and Coleman argued that the depth and time on certain fundamental topics at each grade level required by the common core will help the U.S. catch up in a key metric for academic mastery: the length of lessons. The average lesson length in the U.S. is about one day, they noted, while in other countries with successful academic track records, the average is roughly 10 days.
As further evidence for the value of pushing more topics into higher grades and focusing on fewer key topics in the lower ones, Zimba noted that on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) that compares U.S. scores to other countries' performance, in the K-4 grades, "The more countries covered the topics in TIMSS, the lower the scores."
Monica Sims, a teaching fellow with Student Achievement Partners who works as a middle school teacher at a Chicago school, said that although fractions are a staple of what students should know in 5th grade, a textbook she had seen sets aside only one-and-a-half week for fractions.
"As a moral issue, I can't move on. They don't understand it," Sims said.
Zimba fended off a question from an audience member about whether the common core had been comprehensively tested in the field by saying the common core is the result of a decade-long experiment with students and how they dealt with various standards, as well as extensive research. "They're not a pill," he said.
When it came to actually using the standards successfully, Coleman added, "The 'how' remains in teachers' hands."