A distinguished Berkeley mathematician took to the* Wall Street Journal’s* pages this week to criticize the Common Core math standards for being “several years behind” the old California standards, which she called “among the nation’s best.” Given the author and its substance, the op-ed is going viral through the anti-Common Core blogosphere, adding more proof that the nation’s math wars may yet rival the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for longevity.

(The op-ed is behind the* WSJ* paywall. However, non-subscribers can find this summary of it at Breitbart.com.)

The author, Marina Ratner, a professor emerita of mathematics at UC-Berkeley, devotes most of her column to describing ways Common Core math are lower than those that preceded them. She bluntly concludes that “adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward … [and] will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.”

While I respect Dr. Ratner’s professional expertise, her criticisms should be viewed in the proper context. As EDifier readers know, CPE has no political or organizational stake in the Common Core standards. But we do believe two things: that there is a legitimate public conversation to be had at the state level about whether to participate in national standards; and that this conversation should be based on good information about the Common Core.

That said, I like the Common Core math standards overall even though I have some quibbles. For example, I think the K-3 standards may be a little too much, too soon. But here’s what I like about them:

For one, the Common Core defines fewer math concepts in more depth. One of the biggest problems of mathematics in the U.S. compared to other high-achieving nations is that our math curriculum tends to be, what researcher William Schmidt called, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The Common Core is the latest attempt to change that, hence the fewer, deeper thing. Typically, U.S. students spend the first three to six weeks at the beginning of each school year re-learning mathematics they were taught earlier, but forgot. That’s a ridiculous waste of time and resources. What’s worse, it hasn’t helped our students learn mathematics any better.

Dr. Ratner held special contempt for her sixth-grade grandson’s math work that called for the visualization of fractions, writing “simple concepts are made artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper—while the actual content taught was primitive.” But in fact, all of the modeling is designed to help students learn the concepts, basic concepts included, well enough the first time so they don’t have to repeat the same lessons over and over again.

I also like that the Common Core puts more emphasis on mathematical practices and data, probability and statistics (DPS) than we usually see in state standards. Dr. Ratner echoes criticisms from a handful of university mathematicians who privilege algebra/calculus-based mathematics over all other math domains, even though DPS is the dominant math of other disciplines, work and citizenship. From my point of view, the new emphasis on DPS and mathematical practices is the biggest strength of the Common Core. It should also be noted that graduates meeting the Common Core will, at minimum, have mastered what my math friends call “substantial Algebra II” and nothing precludes students from taking more math. Neither eighth-grade algebra nor high school calculus is going away.

As a Californian, Dr. Ratner was most distressed by her belief that the Common Core are lower standards than the state had before. She claims, in part, this is because California’s previous standards defined expectations for higher math courses, including pre-calculus and calculus. While this is true, this argument is missing some very important context. That is, the advanced math standards applied only to students who took those courses — not to all California students. In truth, California’s existing high school graduation requirements call for only two years of high school math and do not include Algebra II. A high school diploma in the state, therefore, does not mean the graduate has had exposure to higher math.

Finally, Dr. Ratner goes on to repeat a statement from one of the Common Core architects, Jason Zimba, that has been circulated among anti-Common Core activists as proof the standards are lower. As Dr. Ratner tells it, Dr. Zimba admitted in testimony that “the new standards wouldn’t prepare students for colleges to which ‘most parents aspire’ to send their children.”

Dr. Zimba, of course, is exactly right. The Common Core are intended to prepare all graduates to enter a two- or four-year college without the need for remediation. Many (not sure “most”) parents aspire to more selective colleges that will be looking for more on the high school transcript, especially for students wanting to enter STEM fields. Those parents will continue to make sure their child gets pre-calculus and calculus just as they did before the Common Core, and schools will continue to provide those courses. But for the vast majority of students, the new math standards will be a big step up.

In related news, Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia provides a look back at earlier attempts to change math pedagogy so that students would learn concepts with deeper understanding. Beginning with the often-maligned New Math in the 1960s through the NCTM standards and now the Common Core, Willingham shows that the expectations were right, but that past efforts failed because of inadequate time and attention to helping teachers change their instruction. Whether we can muster the commitment this time to do it right remains to be seen. But if we don’t, we can expect the math wars to continue and the casualties we amass will be our students. *– Patte Barth*