OPINION: Why villainize Common Core when Georgia has never gotten math right?

Rather than math standards, we ought to look at math instruction

Gov. Brian Kemp is making good on his pledge "to dismantle Common Core," holding a kickoff meeting Friday of a citizen review committee to give feedback on math standards. That group of 21 will not rewrite the standards; that task will fall to teachers in 2020.

Lost in this anti-Common Core fervor is the fact that Common Core math drew on Georgia's own education standards. I am not sure whether the Georgia GOP used Photoshop or Vulcan mind meld to erase former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s highly visible role in creating the standards, which provide a framework for what students should be able to do in each grade.

Common Core never mandated how Georgia taught or assessed students, which is why the state was able to create and give its own homegrown Milestones test. When Common Core State Standards became the political equivalent to smallpox, Georgia rebranded them in 2015 as Georgia Standards of Excellence.

But the Georgia-centric standards are still under suspicion. Georgia keeps fiddling with standards when it should be looking at instruction. Georgia is among the states that surveyed teachers and found many in elementary and middle school don’t feel prepared to teach the more rigorous foundation necessary for advanced math in high school. A lot of that has to do with insufficient training in math, and, in the case of attempted reforms, insufficient retraining to master new approaches.

If you look at the history of American education, you will find campaigns to revolutionize math instruction going back to the 19th century. But despite innovative forays, we haven’t substantively altered math instruction.

A great New York Times Magazine dive into the problem a few year ago aptly noted: "The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices. The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them."

(As a nation, we also need a research-informed discussion about what higher-level math skills most students really need. With a doctorate in engineering from Stanford where he focused on mathematical modeling, Ted Dintersmith, author of "Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age," values mathematics training. But he thinks we've overblown the significance of calculus. "If there were 10,000 adults right now at a conference in Atlanta and you asked how many of them use calculus in their daily lives, the answer would be zero to three," he said.)

In the PISA test results released last week from 79 countries and economies, Chinese students were almost four full grade levels ahead of U.S. students in mathematics. In China, even very young students are taught by a dedicated math teacher.

Here is what never gets mentioned during the Common Core debate: Georgia has posted poor performance in math long before Perdue and his fellow governors conceived of a common set of standards.

Go back to 2003. Georgia was among the lowest performing states in math on the SAT when Kathy Cox took office as state superintendent.

After researching math standards and outcomes around the world, Cox introduced "integrated math" to Georgia, citing its success in Japan where students were years ahead of American peers. "This is probably the single most important thing I believe we are doing for the future of Georgia," said Cox at the time.

As the AJC reported in May of 2005 when the new math method was formally approved:

The state Board of Education approved a rigorous new math curriculum Thursday that will send traditional algebra and geometry classes the way of the abacus and slide rule. The new math standards for Georgia high schools will require teachers to weave elements of algebra, geometry, statistics and other topics into their classes, instead of teaching them as separate branches of math.

The curriculum, which will be phased in over several years, is based on a Japanese model not commonly found in the United States. The state University System has endorsed the standards, which were revised over the past year by a panel including public school teachers, college professors and curriculum specialists.

All students will have to take the equivalent of Algebra II to graduate from high school, a significant strengthening of minimum standards.

Eventually, integrated math frustrated teachers who said the rollout was underfunded and the training inadequate to the challenge. In a 2014 survey of Georgia teachers, 84 percent said they were not in favor of the integrated model. They wanted to return to the more "traditional" approach, which focuses primarily on one kind of math in each course.

According to a 2016 National Science Board report, 75% of middle school mathematics teachers in low-poverty schools had math degrees, compared with 63% of teachers at high-poverty schools. At the high school level, 95% of mathematics teachers at low-poverty schools had in-field degrees, compared with 87% at high-poverty schools.

Parents were also not fans of Georgia’s math, saying they couldn’t help their kids any more with their homework. Some parents advocated going back to how they learned math 30 years ago.

But did  students learn math more effectively a generation ago? When the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies evaluated numeracy skills of adults in 23 countries, 20 outperformed the United States.

On a scale of zero to 500, the average numeracy score among U.S. adults was 257, well below the international average of 269.  The top scoring nation was Japan, the model for Cox’s much maligned integrated math.

Numeracy does not signify high-level math skill, but is the ability to understand and use mathematical information in daily life. Examples of numeracy questions include reading the temperature in a picture of a thermometer, figuring out from a chart of votes cast which four candidates received the least number and deciphering the sales price of a box of cereal after a percentage discount.

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