Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Boston, MA) National mathematics standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia that supporters say are designed to make high school graduates “college- and career-ready” and improve the critical science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline do not prepare students to study STEM or even be admitted to a selective four-year college, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

“With the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the math standards end after Algebra II,” said James Milgram, professor of mathematics emeritus at Stanford University.  “They include no precalculus or calculus.”  Professor Milgram co-authored “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM with Sandra Stotsky, professor of educationemerita at the University of Arkansas.

At a 2010 meeting of Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Professor Jason Zimba, a lead writer of the math standards, said the standards, known as Common Core, prepare students “for the colleges most kids go to, but not for the college most parents aspire to,” and added that the standards are “not for selective colleges.”

U.S. government data show that only one out of every 50 prospective STEM majors who begin their undergraduate math coursework at the precalculus level or lower will earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area.  Moreover, students whose last high school math course was Algebra II or lower have less than a 40 percent chance of earning any kind of four-year college degree.

In 2010, William McCallum, another lead writer of Common Core’s math standards, said “The overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grant program, Race to the Top, requires states to place students admitted by their public colleges and universities into credit-bearing (non-remedial) mathematics (and English) courses if they have passed a Common Core-based “college readiness” test.  The authors argue that selective public colleges and universities will likely have to lower the level of their introductory math courses to avoid unacceptably high failure rates.

“It’s astonishing that 46 boards and departments of education adopted Common Core’s ‘college- and career-ready’ standards without asking the faculty who teach math at their own higher education institutions to do an analysis of Common Core’s definition of college readiness,” Stotsky said.

Professors Milgram and Stotsky were members of Common Core’s validation committee, which was charged with reviewing each successive draft of the standards, but they both refused to sign off on the academic quality of the national standards.

Pioneer’s comprehensive research on Common Core national education standards includes:  Common Core Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade; The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers; National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards; and A Republic of Republics:  How Common Core Undermines State and Local Autonomy over K-12 Education. Recent national media coverage includes op-eds placed in The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.

You can read the paper below:

1 thought on “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM

  1. Sorry, but much as I oppose the very idea of Common Core standards, Milgram and Stotsky’s (can someone explain to me what qualifies Sandy Stotsky, who has absolutely no background in mathematics past whatever courses she had to take in college for a degree in French lit, as an expert on K-12 mathematics education?) are full of garbage, for a change. They’ve been fighting for 20+ years against the NCTM Standards, and this opposition to the Common Core math is far more about their hatred of the NCTM than about college readiness, global competitiveness, or any other line of malarkey they shill to try to distract people from the actual issues.

    The connection is, as any knowledgeable mathematics educator knows, the Practice Standards in the Common Core. These have nothing to do with specific content, but their crime in the eyes of old school “math warriors” like these two is that they are mostly the same as the hated (by them) NCTM Process Standards that have been around in one form or another since 1989. These are the statements of what sorts of thinking kids should be able to do when learning mathematics and how that should manifest itself in classrooms, regardless of any specific content.

    Of course, it’s trivially easy to find specific content standards to dislike or criticize. Most parents and many K-5 teachers are far more concerned about the developmental inappropriateness evidenced by topics in the Common Core having been pushed down one or more grades (though a few almost arbitrarily appear to have been moved up a grade or so) in an apparent attempt at “raising the bar.” The irony of the Milgram/Stotsky attack is that they don’t feel that the bar has been raised nearly high enough, or so they claim.

    Consider that under the current structure of the Common Core mathematics content standards, from what I’ve seen analyzing the previous curriculum in one Michigan district, it’s perfectly possible for a school to prepare students to take AP Calculus or the equivalent by 12th grade without pushing algebra down before 8th grade. What, exactly, Milgram and Stotsky think goes on in typical “high-performing” countries I’m not really sure, but my guess is that it’s not well-founded. Past middle school, most of those countries are already heavily tracked, with special high schools for those who are STEM-bound, and other tracks for those who are not, or who are not even college bound. I am very skeptical as to whether when such nations test kids in high school math & science that they take a representative cross-section of kids in all the tracks. We, on the other hand, most definitely do. That alone would account for the alleged gap. But when we pit our top kids with top kids in other countries, ours more than hold their own.

    I’m really curious as to what the content standards in math would look like if Milgram and Stotsky wrote them. I’m even more curious as to whether they would accept the overall package if they controlled those content standards completely but were required to accept along with that the Practice Standards. My bet would be that they would sooner bite their tongues off than accept any document that included the Practice Standards, rigor of content be damned.


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