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Op-Ed: The ‘New’ New Jersey Mathematics Standards -- Circa 2009

The Common Core standards place an unnecessary emphasis on Algebra II, which all NJ students do not need to master

Joseph Rosenstein
Joseph G. Rosenstein

Education Commissioner David Hespe initiated the process of creating New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards at the meeting of the New Jersey Board of Education on Wednesday, July 8.

For New Jersey’s new standards in mathematics, the Board of Education need look no further than the modified version of the previous New Jersey Mathematics Standards that was prepared in 2009.

A little bit of history: The initial version of the New Jersey mathematics standards was developed by a committee of K-12 and college mathematics educators and other mathematically knowledgeable individuals as a collaborative effort of the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition. It was adopted in 1996 by the State Board of Education. Revised standards were created by a similar committee and adopted in 2002.

As director of the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition and as initiator of the effort to create mathematics standards in New Jersey (see my 1993 Star Ledger article “Standards-Based Education”), I was the co-chair of both of these committees, together with representatives of the State Department of Education.

During the past decade, New Jersey has consistently been a leading state in students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Indeed, if diversity of population would be taken into consideration, New Jersey’s ranking would have been first in the nation.

It has not been proven that the quality of the former New Jersey mathematics standards resulted in our students’ successful performance on NAEP, but certainly the standards have been an important factor in our success.

Though we can praise ourselves for our successes on the NAEP, we must not forget that we still have a substantial gap in performance between students in the wealthier districts and those in the poorer districts of the state. Thousands of students each year are ending their education without having the mathematical skills they will need to be educated citizens and consumers, let alone being prepared for college and careers.

Although New Jersey mathematics educators held the 2002 version of the New Jersey mathematics standards in high regard, a review of the standards was scheduled to take place about five years later. It turned out that at that time initial steps were being taken to develop national standards, now referred to as the Common Core. (A major impetus for creating the Common Core was the perception that students from the United States were lagging behind students in other countries.)

A group of mathematics educators organized by the New Jersey Mathematics and Science Education Coalition conducted an extensive and intensive review of the various drafts of the Common Core standards in order to achieve two goals: (a) to create a new version of the New Jersey mathematics standards that took into consideration the positive features of the anticipated Common Core standards, and (b) to provide feedback to the committee drafting the Common Core standards based on our almost 15 years of experience with standards.

When the Common Core standards were completed in 2010, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted them almost immediately, without giving any consideration whatsoever either to the 2002 New Jersey mathematics standards or the revised version prepared in 2009 by the team of New Jersey mathematics educators. As a result, they were not even aware of the inadequacies of the Common Core mathematics standards.

What are some of those inadequacies? One is the assumption that all students should learn the material that is typically in an Algebra II course. When that proposal was first raised by the commissioner of education in 2008, I wrote an article for the Star Ledger that was given the title “Algebra II + all high schoolers = overkill.”

I also testified on that issue to the Joint Education Committee of the New Jersey State Legislature and asked them if they were able to calculate 64 to the two-thirds power, a typical Algebra II question. It became clear to them that such topics are not for all students, and the proposal to require all students to take Algebra II was rejected.

Yet a number of political organizations continue to argue that Algebra II is necessary for career readiness for all students. It isn’t. For those students who hope to choose an education and career path that includes science and technology, it is essential, but for those not going in those directions, it is simply unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the Common Core mathematics standards is based on the false assumption that all students should learn much of what is found in an Algebra II course. And that assumption has implications all the way down to the early grades, where it is manifested in what one educator called “a fanatical focus on fractions” in the Common Core mathematics standards.

A second inadequacy of the Common Core mathematics standards is that they essentially banish statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics to the later grades; these are topics that should be woven throughout the curriculum and all grade levels

Students in elementary school should be drawing bar graphs based on their everyday experiences, should be conducting experiments involving coin-tossing, should be discovering and generating patterns, and should be following and writing directions for carrying out simple tasks (like walking from their classrooms to the school office). And students in middle school should be building their understanding of statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics based on their previous activities.

Activities like those are in the previous New Jersey mathematics standards, and the modeling and reasoning and problem solving they entail likely contributed to the success of New Jersey students on the NAEP. (Full disclosure: I have written a textbook entitled “Problem Solving and Reasoning with Discrete Mathematics.”)

Such activities were banished from the Common Core standards because of the mistaken belief that elementary school mathematics should be directed exclusively toward success in algebra and eventually calculus.

The mathematics topics that all students should learn, as embodied in the “new” New Jersey Mathematics Standards, are indeed those that will prepare them for college and career, to be knowledgeable citizens and consumers. Many students should go beyond that and take Algebra II, Precalculus, and Calculus in high school and college.

However, the mathematics topics that all students should learn, and that are embodied in the “new” New Jersey Mathematics Standards, are those found in the 2009 version of the previous New Jersey Mathematics Standards.

Joseph G. Rosenstein is a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. His focus during the last 30 years has been on K-12 mathematics education. In addition to co-chairing the teams that produced the 1996 and 2002 New Jersey Mathematics Standards, he was the editor and a principal author of the New Jersey Mathematics Curriculum Framework. He was Director of the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition for over 15 years.

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