Opinion: New Math Standards Mark Just the Start of the Next Educational Drama

Laura Waters | May 26, 2010 | Opinion
Adoption of CCSS doesn't rescue New Jersey's troubled math curriculum; it only sets the stage for the next battle

Almost everyone agrees that New Jersey’s K-12 math curriculum is a mess. Yet almost everyone argues about how to clean it up. The fight over the state’s math program is especially contentious because the two main opposing factions barely speak each other’s language. Chaos and disorder is nothing new in the educational politics of New Jersey, but the current battle has more than the usual level of classical drama.

Which makes the Department of Education’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) particularly welcome. The CCSS arrive as just the rescue from on high the DOE needs. It’s like a deus ex machina, the ancient plot device whereby a seemingly insurmountable problem is suddenly solved thanks to the unexpected intervention of some all-powerful force.

The only trouble is that this is 21st Century New Jersey. Not only are the CCSS not the magic solution to New Jersey’s math curriculum chaos; they’re also presenting Education Commissioner Bret Schundler with a whole new (and challenging) act to get through.

A little bit of background. The CCSS are a national initiative co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and proffers an internationally benchmarked, content-rich curricula for all of America’s schoolchildren. For many observers, their adoption seems to have come along at the right time. After all, in spite of numerous committees, work groups and initiatives, the K-12 math curriculum has over the past decade basically remained incoherent.

Or worse. In 2005, the Fordham Foundation evaluated math standards in every state and gave New Jersey a “D” grade. “New Jersey’s content coverage is poor in the extreme,” the foundation said, “but we need hardly concern ourselves with it: The state’s entire approach is fundamentally anti-mathematical.” Education Commissioner Lucille Davy concurred in 2008, remarking, “Proof that [NJ] high schools are failing is the number of first-year college students who take remedial classes. In two-year colleges 80 percent need remedial math or English classes; in four-year colleges, 40 percent to 50 percent need them.”

The development of a standardized New Jersey math curriculum is complicated by educational politics. For years, the DOE has relied on a group called the Concerned Math Educators of New Jersey, composed primarily of college and public school math educators, which has written various drafts of the math curriculum when it comes up for its five-year review. Some of those concerned educators also publish textbooks used by New Jersey’s public schools and are paid to conduct professional training for teachers.

Then, a new group — New Jersey Coalition for World Class Math — made itself known by protesting what it sees as a slide towards “fuzzy math,” or a pedagogy that emphasizes conceptual understanding and creative problem solving. The coalition claims that such an approach fails schoolchildren by undermining the teaching of basic skills, and that we need to leave our “new math” behind in favor of an organized sequence that uses mathematical language, symbols and algorithms.

And as anyone could have predicted, the groups have stuck to their oppositional scripts — as detailed in testimonies from State Board of Education meetings. Concerned Educators of New Jersey believes it is “culturally insensitive” to teach the concept of an algorithm, which is a step-by-step computational formula for solving a problem. Different algorithms are used in different cultures, it says, and a teacher should allow students to develop their own valid approaches to solving mathematical problems. Math should be flexible, and reasoned attempts are more important than accuracy or rote memorization of rules. The New Jersey Coalition says that’s nonsense; children must be proficient in basic computational tools used to solve problems so they can successfully proceed to higher mathematics, like algebra and calculus.

Thus the scene is set. Stage left: Concerned Educators, higher ranking and weapon-bearing, defending its signature pedagogy. Stage right: the grassroots New Jersey Math Coalition, agitating with pitchforks. Suddenly, from the rafters, descends the divine CCSS: rigorous and balanced, festooned in coherent, content-rich, internationally benchmarked standards in math, proclaiming peace and an end to chaos. Order is restored and, as an extra bonus, adoption of the CCCS merits extra points on New Jersey’s Race to the Top application.

Curtain down? Not quite. For one thing, the new CCCS will require a different set of textbooks than districts typically use. Yet it was only after prodding from a couple of school board members that Commissioner Schundler’s office issued a memo on May 17 advising districts to delay purchasing textbooks because the new standards “change the nature of the curriculum, influencing the pacing of instruction across the grades as well as setting up learning progressions that change the year-to-year topics.” For another, the diversity of the state and the temptation to succumb to political pressures will challenge the best efforts at implementing the CCSS.

And that’s the problem with the whole concept of the deus ex machina: It tests believability. So forget divine intervention and contrived rescues. When it comes to upgrading New Jersey’s math standards, what New Jersey students and Commissioner Schundler must continue to grapple with is gritty reality.

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