By Pat Murray
In 2007 I began to research elementary math programs because my son, a second grader at the time, was bringing back homework in math that seemed to be in a foreign language.
I soon learned that elementary and middle schools throughout the nation had been systematically converted from traditional math programs to the new fad of reform programs. Programs like Everyday Mathematics, Investigations in Number, Data and Space, Math Trailblazers, Connected Mathematics and Math Thematics that did not teach—and actually discouraged—the standard algorithms for arithmetic.
This expensive but futile exercise began in 1989 and has resulted in three generations of American K-12 students without the basic math skills they need in our society.
As a member of our local school board, I was on the Disciplinary Review Committee for four years. Almost without exception students brought before the committee for behavior issues were failing in math or English or both. I began asking the parents when they’d first noticed a change in their son or daughter’s attitude about school.
In a vast majority of cases, the problems began when the students started to fail in math. Due to the abstract nature and the lack of parents’ knowledge of the methods used in these new math programs, the parents were unable to assist their children with homework or explain even the basic fundamentals of the methods being taught to them. (This was one of the major complaints of parents nationwide.)
As students progressed through the grades, they fell further and further behind until many eventually dropped out of school. The students, who knew they needed three or four years of high school math to graduate, saw dropping out as their only option.
After years of complaints from parents and math experts, a number of studies were done, including an effort by the National Math Advisory Panel, a two-year study. Time and time again the results were the same. Math programs in the U.S. were “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The reform programs that had been pushed on schools imparted too much subject material without allowing students to master the basic skills needed to progress through the fundamental learning process of mathematics.
To successfully comprehend algebra, which has been deemed the benchmark to strive for, a student needs mastery of basic arithmetic. Every study indicated the need to return to teaching the standard algorithms. Even with all this evidence, there are still people today in policy rolls who think “instant recall” of math facts is a waste of time.
Even before the results of many studies were known, several states had begun to hire experts and conduct their own studies and research. In 2001, as Maine began to adopt reform math, California, Utah and Texas had just banned some of the programs.
Several more states were in the process of beginning the costly but necessary review process. States that had completed their reviews were revising their standards, calling for a return to teaching mastery of basic skills.
This is about when the National Governors Association (NGA) got together and decided to pool their resources so each state would not have to incur separate costs (a common-sense approach). Unfortunately, this is when things started to go wrong.
The NGA teamed up with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a logical and obvious partnership. The problem was—and still is—members of the CCSSO were the very same people who had pushed the reform math fads that got them in this situation in the first place.
Initially groups like Achieve and the Fordham Foundation were standing shoulder to shoulder with the opponents of reform math. Federal funding and funding from private sources, like textbook publisher Pearson and the Bill Gates Foundation, have dumped millions into promoting Common Core Standards.
With the birth of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, there was great optimism from every citizen group who had opposed reform math for over two decades.
Unfortunately, the CCSSO saw to it that the math standards originally proposed by their expert panel were watered down significantly. Even blatant errors and omissions were not corrected before the final product was revealed to the public and labeled “Finished.”
Then the federal Department of Education came to the rescue. Tony Bennett, Indiana State Superintendent of Schools and a supporter of Common Core Standards, said it best. “This administration has an insatiable appetite for federal overreach,” he said. “The federal government’s involvement in these standards is wrong.”
He contended that while the Common Core is a state-driven initiative, it has been hijacked by the power-hungry Obama administration.
To be eligible for Race to the Top funds, states must adopt Common Core State Standards, which are nationwide K-12 and “college and career” academic standards. Forty-five states, including Maine, have adopted the standards for math and English.
Now the U.S. Dept. of Education is the steward of National Standards, National Assessments, National Curriculum, Race to the Top extortion, No Child Left Behind Waiver bribery and with the latest round of Race to the Top funding, is attempting to usurp state authority by bribing individual school districts. Of course, the school districts will have to comply with the strings attached and take commands directly from Washington D.C.
The U.S. Department of Education has an annual budget that equals $83,000 dollars for every K-12 student in the United States, but gives us back $882 per student. Not a good rate of return.
Taxpayers have been completely left out of the process of paying for all of this. In Maine, we were told by a member of the state Dept. of Education at a public hearing that Common Core Standards would not cost anything! Then, after a fiscal report was requested by the Education Committee, the same spokesperson said, “School districts would be able to absorb the costs.”
States that have actually done a cost analysis have estimated the costs to be very high. California estimated it would cost $1.6 billion to implement Common Core Standards. Other states have estimates in the hundreds of millions. Washington State estimated $300 million.
The Pioneer Institute and American Principals Project did a comprehensive study and released a white paper projecting that $16 billion will have to “be absorbed” by states and local districts.
Teacher training, new textbooks that align with Common Core Standards, infrastructure upgrades for computers, computer maintenance personnel, hardware and software for the assessments—these are areas that will need continued funding and the only area in which taxpayers will have a say. Local control? With Common Core, the only thing your local school board will have to decide is who will plow the parking lot in the winter.
Pat Murray of Bradford, Maine is co-founder of the Maine Coalition for World Class Math and a former member of the school board in MSAD 64.