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The many problems with Common Core

Robert Niles
Published: November 26, 2013 at 9:13 PM (MST)
My son's eighth-grade math class has begun implementing the new national "Common Core" math standards, and the new education curriculum already has taught me something.

As my college roommate wrote on Facebook, "we've replaced 'No Child Left Behind' with 'Every Child Left in the Dust.'"

Via Wikimedia Commons

The idea behind Common Core was alluring, especially to those of us frustrated with hearing about states that have cheapened their education standards over the years, such as by trying to write evolution out of science standards in favor of various religious mythology. Or by replacing biologically accurate information abut human reproduction with "abstinence based" sex-ed programs that have been shown to increase teen pregnancy rates.

Under Common Core, the thinking was, states would adopt a common, national set of education standards, one that would be guided by education professionals and not hijacked by reactionary politicians in individual states.

Well, Common Core did deliver a national set of education standards. But many education professionals aren't happy with the result.

Looking at what my son's doing in his math class, it's easy for me to understand why. To start with a little background, California's been one of the few states in the country where the "normal" math track was for students to take calculus in 12th grade. That meant the majority of students would take Algebra I in eighth grade. (In most states, students start Algebra I in ninth grade.) Common Core does away with high school calculus. That's right, a system sold as an improvement in educational standards actually reduces those standards in the nation's largest state.

As a compromise for California and states that had included calculus in the high school curriculum, Common Core accelerates what the other states had implemented, to add additional statistics and advanced math instruction to that track. You can think of Common Core as a compromise between the two tracks. You take away those two semesters of calculus, but add an additional semester of stats in its place.

That creates a new math track that's a bit accelerated when compared with the "Algebra in ninth grade" track used by most states in the country. In fact, Common Core effectively introduces the first semester of Algebra I in eighth grade. For California students transitioning from the old state standards to Common Core, that presents a choice. In my son's case, he could transition to the Eighth Grade Common Core class and repeat a semester's worth of math from last year, followed by getting the first semester of the Algebra he would have gotten this year under the old standards.

Or… he could take Common Core Algebra I, which presumes that you've already taken the first semester of the "old" Algebra I, and moves on to include the second semester of that, plus the first semester of Algebra II. In effect, it's three semesters of Algebra, packed into one year. (I did that in high school in Indiana so that I could take calculus my senior year. But I did that as a high school freshman, not as an eighth grader.)

But a change in pace isn't the only change with Common Core. Another feature of the system is to create additional applications for math skills. Remember story problems? They're back, with vengeance, in Common Core.

Hey, I'm all for showing students how math applies to their everyday lives. I've been preaching that sermon for years. But Common Core's blown that opportunity, at least in the instruction materials I've seen in use in my son's class. For the bulk of this semester, they've been learning their new Common Core Algebra standards by solving story problems related to the Oregon Trail.

Yep, the 19th century frontier trail across the American west. The curriculum features hoary old story problems such as one about calculating weight of individual bales of hay, when all you know are paired bale weights.

What a missed opportunity. Want to get students to want to learn math? Let's use it to challenge students to create their own fantasy sports leagues. The advance metrics that sports fans and team executives are developing to evaluate athletic performance could enliven the high school Algebra curriculum for millions of American students who already follow pro and college sports every single day.

Not into sports? How about a high school math curriculum that challenges students to develop a supply, production, and sales chain for fashion, toys, or any other type of consumer product? If you don't think there are millions of high school students out there who've day-dreamed about starting their own fashion or music or design businesses, then you probably haven't talked with a teenager recently.

How about another option — teaching students the math behind buying and selling real estate? Or teaching them about the tax system, and empowering them to calculate where all that money goes? Those are skills that would connect math with the "real world" that students live in today, instead of contrived situations inspired by the no-longer-real world of nearly two centuries ago.

Why on Earth would we create a new national math standard, with the intention of creating better real-world application of math skills, and implement it with a curriculum that relies on story problems from things that happened two centuries ago? It makes me question whether creating stronger connections between math and its application for students really was the intention of Common Core.

I'm hardly the only one with concerns. Parents across the country are complaining about what they're seeing in their children's Common Core classes. Let's remember that no one's tested the Common Core standards. Sure, there have been trail implementations in some states. But there's been no systemic effort to test the new curricula against controls — isolating students performance by family income, existing skill level, and outside support — to see if Common Core curricula really outperform other curricula. Parents are left wondering why their children's teachers are scrambling to implement untested lesson plans that too often leave kids confused.

And then, this month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stoked fears about the motivation behind Common Core. In reaction to a growing outcry among parents about Common Core, Duncan lashed out, saying "that he found it 'fascinating' that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from 'white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.'"

After more than a decade of watching education "reform" advocates lie about our nation's public schools in an attempt to scare up support for their plans to lower teacher training standards, reduce average teacher pay, and funnel billions of school tax dollars to private companies and church groups under the guise of providing more "choice," it's hard not to read Duncan's words and then see Common Core as the latest attempt to convince American parents that their public schools actually stink.

I've watched local leaders here in my home of Pasadena turn public support away from high-poverty schools by labeling them as underperforming, conflating cause and effect. But while such efforts across the country have worked to weaken support for some schools and districts, it's not turned Americans collectively against public education. The vast majority of parents support the schools their children attend, especially in suburban districts with few poor students. So if the "reform" crowd can't also convince those parents who live in affluent suburbs that their high-testing schools are inferior, it appears that now it'll switch to changing the curricula to make it more confusing and irrelevant to students' lives. Maybe that will be enough to force those parents to give up on public education, and turn to send their kids — and tax dollars — to the reformers' beloved corporate-run charter schools instead.

Or maybe that finally will spur parents around the country to stop this ridiculous education "reform" movement that's always been more about making money than teaching kids. Here's one parent's 'fascinating' idea: Let's leave the politicians and billionaires pushing Common Core in the dust… instead of our kids.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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