IT’S THE FIRST MATH LESSON of the year for eighth-graders in Michelle Calioro’s class at Putnam Avenue Upper School in East Cambridge, and she is teaching from a new curriculum called Math in Focus. The curriculum, adapted from one used in Singapore, is aligned with what is now household language in school districts across 45 states and the District of Columbia: the Common Core State Standards, a framework that in 2010 redefined what should be taught in US schools and when, with the goal of better preparing students across the country for college and the workplace.
When the 18 middle schoolers shuffle in, the class objective on the board reads: “Understand and use exponential notation.”
Before getting there, though, Calioro spends some time reviewing fundamentals to make sure students are up to speed. One girl in a pink hoodie comes up to the board to solve the problem -4 x 9. She writes -36.
“Do we agree, disagree, have questions, comments?” asks Calioro, now in her ninth year of teaching.
“I think she’s right,” says a boy in a green long-sleeved shirt. “It’s negative thirty-six.”
“Why?” asks Calioro.
“Because four times nine is thirty-six, but then you can see the negative in front of it, so it has to be negative,” answers the student.
This type of dialogue has become an everyday thing in her classroom since she switched to the new standards last year, Calioro says. Math teachers now probe to find out how students got to an answer rather than just accepting the correct one. She says she was skeptical at first and admits the switch was an adjustment for everyone and led to a bumpy beginning.
“Last year, one of the biggest things I saw was kids struggling,” she says, “but struggling in a positive way.” The new standards encourage teachers to let students grapple with math reasoning before instructors answer their questions. “Sometimes that’s hard, because kids want the answer,” says Calioro. “But it’s really about pushing the reasoning and the abstract thinking part of it. I think that was really missing from the old standards.”
In the summer of 2010, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously to adopt Common Core. Since then, districts have begun implementing the new standards, with some now further along than others. About two-thirds of districts agreed to push for changes in line with federal Race to the Top grants — which require training teachers on the new standards, putting databases in place that track teacher and student performance, and making new technology available in schools — and also received extra money from the state and early access to curriculum resources. Those resources are becoming available to all districts this year.
The change in Massachusetts comes amid a fierce political debate surrounding the Common Core standards, with some states taking steps this year to try to abandon them. The debate usually focuses on what the federal government’s role in education should be, the high cost to implement changes, and whether the standards are rigorous enough for US students to compete on an international level.
But there is more to the debate in Massachusetts. With the state’s history of high standards and steadily rising test scores after the Education Reform Act of 1993 kicked in, questions here centered more on whether it was a good idea to change what we were already doing well. Massachusetts students excel on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth-, eighth-, and sometimes 12th-graders in both private and public schools across the country. And the state ranked sixth in the world in math on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (it comes out every four years). Public and private school students and schools in Massachusetts, measured with 63 countries and nine American states, scored in the company of Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.
Despite these achievements, the people involved in developing the Common Core standards — such as educators from Achieve, a nonprofit, bipartisan group based in Washington D.C., along with the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and lead writers of the standards themselves — insist they are indeed a step forward for the Bay State.
“We agreed they probably had the best standards in the country,” says Michael Cohen, Achieve’s president, referring to Massachusetts before Common Core. “So significant attention was paid to the Massachusetts standards.” Cohen and other lead writers say teams of the state’s curriculum experts, including teachers, were involved throughout the process, provided important feedback, and had a real impact.
Still, some critics insist that the move to national standards and the assessments that come with them don’t aim high enough for Massachusetts.
“You’re taking a system that worked very well and took more than a decade to put in place and essentially changing for a new system that at best is about as good — at best,” says Ze’ev Wurman, a former policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration who also counseled the writers of California’s highly regarded math standards.
But Common Core has been widely seen as a good thing for the Bay State. The heads of 15 major math associations in the United States have supported the new math standards. And David Driscoll, the commissioner of education during much of the state’s academic ascent, supports Massachusetts’s move to the new standards. He sees the debate as a political distraction and says the performance on the new national assessments will settle the question.
“If the results come out and Massachusetts students do a lot better on these new tests, then you have to worry that the new standards aren’t high enough,” Driscoll says. “But I’m pretty confident.”
SINCE COMMON CORE WAS INTRODUCED, teachers across the nation have been preparing new lessons that align with the standards. Most notably, they’re infusing more nonfiction reading into the curriculum and changing when certain concepts are covered. For example, rules for how to use a comma are first taught in elementary instead of middle school, and identifying points on a grid is introduced in fifth grade instead of third.
In math, one central change is a much more deliberate pace in the early grades. Teachers cover fewer topics in greater depth, with the goal of achieving mastery of the basics early on. The shift came after research conducted at Michigan State University compared US math standards with those of the highest-performing countries and found that the US system, including Massachusetts’s, taught too much too soon, and too superficially. With the new standards, teachers aren’t “wasting time trying to teach things kids can’t learn at that particular grade level,” says William Schmidt, a professor of education and statistics at Michigan State and coauthor of the study.
Some have criticized the new pace of the math standards, saying they introduce Algebra I too late, leaving Calculus, a typical expectation for admission to many elite colleges, out of the high school equation. This past summer, parents in Reading held a protest for exactly this reason.
But Jason Zimba, a lead writer of the standards who has taught college physics and math, says it is not the standards themselves but state policies outlining students’ paths to advanced math courses that make the difference. “The previous Massachusetts standards didn’t require Calculus” either, says Zimba. “But Massachusetts students were still taking Calculus.”
He adds that Algebra I was not required in the eighth grade under the old standards, but many students ended up taking it because school districts, with the help of guidelines from the state, were — and still are — responsible for designing their own pathways. “If you have Harvard in mind, you better learn some more mathematics” than the required minimum, he says, adding that that applied under the old standards as well. Eighth-grade teacher Calioro says that some Algebra concepts have actually been pushed down to eighth grade, and that in Cambridge high schools, those beginning Algebra I in their freshman year have the opportunity to take Calculus as seniors.
While critics’ issues with math focus on pace and reach, those against the new English Language Arts standards take aim at what they see as a move away from literature in favor of informational texts, especially in high school English classes. Under the new standards, the proportion of nonfiction or informational texts to literature climbs throughout middle and high school, reaching 70 percent and 30 percent respectively by 12th grade. (Those figures are across all areas of study, not just English.)
“You’ve got a reduction in literature and you’ve got an increase in something that has little meaning in an English class,” says Sandra Stotsky, a former Massachusetts Department of Education senior associate commissioner and retired University of Arkansas professor who is one of the harshest critics of Common Core.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute public policy think tank who also has experience teaching at the university level and as a prep school headmaster, agrees: “It does not hold their attention and it does not build their vocabulary anywhere near the speed and depth that you get in literature.”
Sue Pimentel, a New Hampshire-based education analyst and one of the lead writers of the new standards, says that while English classes will experience a small spike in informational texts, the bulk will be in other subjects, like science and history. Pimentel says there will also be a clearer outline of expectations for students’ reading and writing, and a better road map for choosing progressively more complex texts, and a greater emphasis in writing assignments on using evidence to support conclusions. All of these things, she says, are improvements on the most recent Massachusetts standards.
In addition, since all states that adopted Common Core are allowed to supplement up to 15 percent of the standards, Massachusetts has created its own suggested-reading list. It includes fiction — The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Grapes of Wrath are there — as well as nonfiction such as Thoreau’s Walden and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
Heather Bishop, the department chairwoman in language and literacy at Kennedy Middle School in Natick, says the change has meant more nonfiction, not fewer novels, since her department made the switch to Common Core in 2011. “I haven’t taken anything away,” says Bishop. “I’ve only added to it.”
ANOTHER MAJOR SHIFT will be felt during testing time, as state schools look at transitioning away from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which is tied to the old curriculum. MCAS scores rose to just about 90 percent and 80 percent proficiency, respectively, in 10th-grade English Language Arts and math in 2013. But some educators, like Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for the state, say that’s not good enough. “Despite that success,” says Chester, “when you track our graduates who enroll in [the state’s] public higher-ed institutions, 40 percent are being placed in remedial classes their freshman year in college.”
Chester is citing a figure drawn from Edwin Analytics, a data system funded in part by Race to the Top. If all goes according to plan and the assessments show that the new curriculum is indeed better, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam will replace MCAS for math and English after spring 2015. Massachusetts is part of a consortium of nearly 20 states (Chester chairs the PARCC governing board) that is developing the readiness test, which will be aligned with the new standards; other states have chosen another new test. The exam will be piloted in some Massachusetts schools in spring 2014. Recently, states such as Georgia and Florida have dropped out of PARCC testing, citing cost, including implementing new assessments, as well as federal overreach. But several estimates from both sides of the issue show that the new tests will be slightly cheaper to administer and grade than the MCAS.
Cost estimates for implementing Common Core in Massachusetts vary. Pioneer Institute says that the move will cost the state close to $355 million. State officials have not released an overall figure but say that about $40 million of the $250 million in Race to the Top money is being used to implement Common Core and that money for things like professional development could be included in perpupil allotments received by districts.
As for middle school math teacher Calioro, she says that most of her monthly math professional development meetings are now focused on preparing for the PARCC exams, whereas before they centered on implementing Common Core. She says she expects this year to be smoother, since her new students were taught a full Common Core curriculum last year, but that there are bound to be bumps as students and teachers recalibrate. “I’m hopeful that as we move forward that will decrease and students will come into eighth grade really ready for the rigor,” says Calioro, “and that they’ll leave really ready for high school.”
Nick Pandolfo is a freelance writer in Somerville. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.