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NCLB Outrages

Common Core standards undermine California's gains

Here's one Standardisto quarreling with other Standardistos, proving once again that the enemy of your enemy isn't necessarily your friend. That said, Wurman makes a good point: The Feds have no business undermining California's agenda.

by Ze'ev Wurman

Academic content standards are lists of the topics that K-12 students are expected to master in each grade. This past summer, organizations of governors and of state school superintendents launched a new effort (the Common Core State Standards Initiative) to create common academic standards across all states, effectively national content standards. The federal government has promised $350 million stimulus money to promote these standards, and states that compete for a slice of the $4 billion available from the federal "Race to the Top" program would be required to adopt them.

States, like California, endeavor to align their whole education system around content standards - curriculum, teacher training, textbooks and testing. Thus, vague and low standards can have a destructive effect. National standards will affect our children and our economic future for years to come.

The Common Core Initiative published its first draft for College Readiness in September, and these standards are hardly clear or high. The math standards, for example, make two explicit promises: that the standards are measurable and that students meeting them will be prepared for non-remedial college mathematics. They offer more than 100 examples of the mathematics skills expected of students. Here is one: If everyone in the world went swimming in Lake Michigan, what would happen to the water level? Would Chicago be flooded?

An interesting but mostly non-mathematical problem. The math skills measured are estimation and division at the fifth-grade level, but how accurate is measuring even those low-level math skills when the answer depends mostly on non-mathematical knowledge: the Earth's population; Lake Michigan's surface area; Chicago's elevation above the water level; or whether the water will spill over to Lake Huron before flooding Chicago. Out of the published 105 examples, almost two-thirds have flaws of one type or another, making them inappropriate as reliable measures of math knowledge. This is deeply troubling, given these standards may shortly be imposed on the whole nation.

Even worse, the standards do not meet their second promise. Admission to an overwhelming majority of state universities around the country, including our own California State University and University of California systems, requires three years of high-school math including, Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry . The Common Core standards removed large portions of this content, including geometry of circles, logarithms, and study of combinations and permutations. Students meeting these standards would be ineligible even for CSU and, if accepted, will likely be placed in remedial classes.

California has clear and high content standards that have been highly praised by virtually all experts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell were wise when they conditioned our acceptance of Common Core standards on their being on par with our own. So far Common Core standards fall far short of that goal.

Ze'ev Wurman, an electrical engineer from California, was a member of the committee that wrote the 1997 California Mathematics Framework. He served as a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education between 2007 and 2009.

— Ze'ev Wurman
San Francisco Chronicle


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