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Interview With Phil Daro and Jason Zimba on the Common Core

This is the first of two blogs in which I interview Phil Daro and Jason Zimba on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  Both Daro and Zimba played key roles in writing the Common Core mathematics standards.  Daro has, among many other things, directed large-scale teacher professional development programs for the University of California including the American Mathematics Project and directed the New Standards Project.  Zimba is Founding Partner, Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization.

Marc Tucker: When you and your colleagues had finished drafting the Common Core mathematics standards, and the states were beginning to adopt them, what were your biggest concerns about implementation?
Phil Daro: Well, I was very concerned that we had no tools that we could give school people that they could use to make the Common Core useful and productive.  I am speaking mainly of the instructional materials and techniques required to make the Common Core come alive.
Jason Zimba: I was most concerned about the quality of the tests that would be used to assess whether students had mastered the Common Core.  I believed then and believe today that the teachers will teach to the assessments and, that being the case, the quality and alignment of the tests is crucial.

MT: So how is it going?
JZ: When we started, it looked as though the two state consortia would dominate the testing market.  Now that is much less clear, nor is it clear what might emerge if the two state consortia fail to dominate the testing market.  It is also true that the earlier consensus around accountability and the place of testing in the grand scheme of things is in flux, creating even more uncertainty.  I am for that reason much less sure than I was a few years ago that putting all my eggs in the testing basket is optimal.  The curriculum front — making sure that teachers have an adequate supply of first-rate materials — is also very important.

MT: Are the testing consortia getting it right?
JZ: When we wrote the standards, we did not anticipate the degree to which the consortia would embrace computerization.  It is, I think, too early to say whether that was the best decision for mathematics in terms of the types of tasks that are or are not available.  But both consortia have shown a lot of fidelity to the standards and that is something to celebrate, as is the fact that there is much more mathematics in the tests the two consortia are developing than there used to be in American mathematics tests.   

MT: You've talked about the importance of the design of accountability systems in determining the direction and quality of implementation of the Common Core.  What do you mean?
PD: This was a worry from the beginning.  Moving from test-based accountability for schools to test-based accountability for individual teachers, using a value-added methodology, is very problematic.  It could sink the Common Core.  Teachers all over the country who earlier reported their enthusiasm for the Common Core are now opposing it because they see what they think of as tests based on the Common Core being used to unfairly characterize their performance.

MT: You both said to me a moment ago that you are turning your attention to curriculum, instructional materials and texts.  What do you see going on in that arena now?
JZ: I think the most important thing about the Common Core is the way it rededicates the elementary grades to arithmetic.  What makes me scared is that I open up a textbook and I see it still uses the old content architecture but it's got a new section on Common Core stuff.  That won't work.  In order to rededicate the elementary grades to arithmetic you have to redo the whole textbook.  On another point, we see a lot of schools trying to implement each standard, one by one, in a very literal way.  The schools would do much better if they concentrated on turning classrooms into academic places where ideas really count, places in which discussion of those ideas is at the center of classroom activity.
PD: Children still have to learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide.  Those things haven't changed.  The basics of arithmetic have been made more coherent, and arithmetic has been reorganized to lay a strong foundation for algebra and more advanced arithmetic.  All in all, the biggest change is that at any point in the curriculum the content is more solidly founded on what went before and aimed more directly at what's coming next.  

MT: When I describe the Common Core at the elementary school level, what I say is, "It is still important to learn the algorithms.  But what the Common Core does is focus kids on why those algorithms work, so that when they get to algebra and topics beyond that, they will have the tools they need to understand it."  Is that wrong?
JZ: I think that's a great short summary.

MT: Phil, when we were doing New Standards, you and Ann Borthwick came to the view that the standards ought to be two things: they ought to be statements about what kids ought to know and be able to do and those statements should be attached to student work that exemplifies and illustrates the standards.  The latter ought to be viewed as an integral part of the standards, not an appendage to them.
PD: If I had to look at one thing to judge the implementation of the standards in a school, I would look at the cognitive demand of assignments across classrooms.  In a lot of ways, that's the critical thing.  What's presented to the students is not as important as what students are responsible for doing.  Put another way, what the students make is more important than what's made for the students.  So, giving teachers examples of student work that exemplify the kind of thing that they should be working on is essential.  It is no less important to ask whether the materials given to teachers support the kind of student assignments that are likely to produce the kind of student work that exemplifies the standards.  I see very little of this now.

Follow NCEE at @CtrEdEcon.

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