I went to a panel on Common Core Standards in DC this weekend led by Bill Schmidt at Michigan State University. He’s involved in Common Core assessment design and research on teacher’s implementation of Common Core. He was excited by the possibilities of collaboration around coherent standards but still the tone of the discussion he led was pessimistic.

Do I start with the good or the bad?

The good is that a lot of people are thinking about implementing the Common Core and providing resources and professional development to teachers. Also, there is a general positive feeling surrounding content of the standards by those high up in education with a lifetime of experience.

However, many in the discussion saw the same issues that I did-teachers don’t understand the math in the core deeply enough to teach it as intended and current resources are inadequate to support their attempts at change.(A Mewborn article summarizes some of the research backing that up: Teachers content knowledge, teacher education, and their effects on the preparation of elementary teachers in the United States) Those who have really tried to change teacher knowledge and practice have found that it can take more than 70 hours of professional development to start undoing the damage done by traditional math instruction. (Per usual, see the Teaching Gap for data and details.) And people have had difficult times linking teacher’s mathematical knowledge to student outcomes, probably because teachers need to be aware of student thinking to help students grapple with ideas that challenge them to advance their thinking. So even if we get these teachers up to speed on mathematics, we haven’t solved the problem of what they actually do in the classroom.

Dr Schmidt gave us some preliminary data reports from a study he is involved in that randomly sampled math teachers about their knowledge of Common Core. The good news was that 80% of them knew about the Common Core. The bad news was that 80% of them said that the Common Core was basically what they were already doing. See my post on a Teaching Channel video where a teacher is identified as teaching a standard that is only superficially present in her lesson. She is having kids memorize a rule related to proportion instead of interpreting and understanding proportional situations with math. If teachers see the Common Core as a way that states can write one big test instead of 50 and save some money they are not going to be perturbed enough to change their practice.

Since people in the discussion were so pessimistic about secondary curriculum aligned to the Common Core, I brought up the curriculum designed at Arizona State. Introducing this curriculum has perturbed some mathematics teachers to reevaluate and change their practice. It might be a tool to solve the 80% think Common Core is the same thing issue. An amazing woman, Marilyn Carlson wrote the curriculum Precalculus Pathways, aligned to many Common Core Standards, so that teachers could actually implement their new mathematical knowledge in the classroom. I hope that the curriculum goes somewhere-she included the topic she did because she knew that they were useful. She is faithful to the standards of mathematical practice because she believes in them. There is some beginning research that teachers using these materials are making shifts in instruction. But the shifts are slow. However, when I told the people at the discussion that there was actually materials that already were written and fit well with Common Core ideals no one had heard of it. This is where marketing and business seem to be a critical part of actually moving the world forward with your research.

Many textbook companies are just switching around the order of their books and slapping on “common core” to the cover. I worry that these superficial changes will just cause teachers more work but won’t result in student progress. I worry that the content and vision of the standards will be deemed a failure because they won’t actually be implemented. The Teaching Gap notes that time and again people adopt superficial features of reform. Japanese teachers use chalkboards instead of overheads in math. Math teachers use their whiteboards but do the same thing as they did on the overheads and nothing changes. Or we change the order of our standards and teach out of a new book but still teach proportions as cross multiplication and slope as rise over run. And nothing changes an we all wonder why education reforms don’t work.

So, I hope that a few brilliant people like Marilyn will be able to create resources and share them broadly that might actually make a difference. Common Core makes this more of a possibility, but certainly not a certainty.

Can you give an example or two of something in the common core that isn’t something that people are expected to teach today?