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The Problem With the Common Core Math Standards

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In this essay, I argue that the Common Core literature tries to intimidate opposition, in part, by using pretentious language. To support this claim, I cite math standards as well as the literature explaining them. To paraphrase George Orwell, words like commutativity and associativity give a scientific air to dubious judgments about the quality of the Common Core.

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I am reading a second grade math homework assignment. To get full credit, students must not only determine which of two numbers is higher, they must also demonstrate knowledge of place value. The assignment illustrates Common Core State Standard 2.0A.A.1:

Use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.

In case this is opaque to you, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) offers the following explanation:

Real-life situations provide context and empirical support for the mathematical properties of addition (commutativity and associativity, which combine to make the so-called "any which way rule") and for the mathematical relationship between addition and subtraction (subtraction is an unknown-addend problem).

Although I studied statistics and econometrics in graduate school, I must admit that I can barely follow these quotes. Later in the NYSED document, we encounter the following statement:

The Common Core State Standards present a balanced approach to mathematics that stresses equally the goals of conceptual understanding, fluency, and application.


On the contrary, this statement is crystal clear. The standards teach good things, e.g. conceptual understanding. If you don't understand the Common Core, the implication is that it's your problem.

George Orwell warned against this kind of abuse of language in his essay, "Politics and the English Language." Orwell argues that authors should write as clearly and simply as the material allows. He criticizes authors who use "pretentious diction" to give "an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments." Authors can use big words and convoluted sentences to make readers feel stupid. In this case, the Common Core literature may intimidate administrators, teachers, and parents to accept the new educational regime.

Parents of young children might be willing to endorse the Common Core math standards if they are confident that the payoff will be worth it. In a recent policy paper, two professors on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky, observe that the math progression does not reach precalculus. College students who did not take a precalculus course in high school rarely go on to earn a bachelor's degree in a STEM area. In point of fact, the Common Core does not prepare students for careers in science, mathematics, engineering, finance, or economics. "At this time, we can only conclude that a gigantic fraud has been perpetrated on this country, in particular on parents in this country, by those developing, promoting, or endorsing Common Core's standards."

When discussing politics, citizens should speak to one another as clearly and sincerely as possible. Right now, the Common Core literature uses technical terms and tortuous prose to sell an educational philosophy that may not deliver what it promises.