The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics

The new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) represent a major change in the way U.S. schools teach mathematics. Rather than a fragmented system in which content is "a mile wide and an inch deep," the new common standards offer the kind of mathematics instruction we see in the top-achieving nations, where students learn to master a few topics each year before moving on to more advanced mathematics. Together with my colleague Richard Houang, I've done some research looking at the CCSSM to see if it can improve student achievement that will be published in the academic journal Educational Researcher in November. Without getting into too many specifics here (for that you'll have to read the article), we found that the new standards closely resemble the standards of those countries that do best in mathematics. The CCSSM demonstrates three key characteristics of a strong curriculum: they are focused (in that they concentrate on a few topics every year), rigorous (with grade-level appropriate material), and coherent (move from simpler to more sophisticated topics). We also found that those states whose old standards were more like the CCSSM did better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gold standard for U.S. national assessments.

On paper, the Common Core Math Standards could make a real difference in U.S. education, both because it has the potential to improve average scores, but also because as common standards students won't be learning totally different material just because they happen to live in different communities. As I wrote last time, there are extreme differences in what topic coverage students are exposed to at the same grade level, not just between schools but even between classrooms. And remember, this inequality in learning opportunities is even greater among middle-income school districts than among poor districts. The Common Core is a golden opportunity to do something about these inequalities, if it's properly implemented.

And that's a big if. Without energetic action to put them into place, standards are just words on paper. Right now most of the effort is going into creating the assessments to evaluate whether or not students are learning material aligned with the new standards. The idea is that each state will pick from a common pool of questions, but that we'll be able to accurately compare how students are doing in math across different states - something that right now is hard to do because of the huge variety in state assessments and different definitions of what's "proficient" in mathematics. Getting the assessments right is very important, of course, but I want to emphasize something I think is equally important: getting buy-in from teachers and parents. Without their support, the new standards will almost certainly fail.

To figure out how much parents and teachers know about the CCSSM, and what they think about it, last year we commissioned a nationally representative survey of 6,000 parents, and another survey of 12,000 teachers in the forty states that had so far adopted the Common Core. We found that most teachers had heard of the CCSSM (about 80%) and that over 90% of them thought it was a good idea to have common math standards. Unfortunately, over three quarters of teachers thought that the CCSSM was pretty much the same as their old state standards - something we know from our research really isn't the case. About half of teachers said that lack of parental support was their biggest worry about successfully implementing the CCSSM. As for parents, only about two in five had heard of the Common Core, but once we described it 68% of parents supported the stronger common standards in math, while 90% thought that U.S. students should be exposed to mathematics as advanced as that in higher-achieving countries. Parents also thought it was important to have mathematics every year.

So the good news is that teachers and parents are open to the idea of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. They like the idea of rigorous math standards that every student has an opportunity to learn. The bad news is that parents and teachers don't have a lot of information about what the Common Core really is. State governments, school administrators, and the big national organizations championing the CCSSM are starting the process of helping teachers and parents get the information (and support) they need to make the new standards a success. But we have a long way to go.