A New Course for K–12 Mathematics Education

Guest post by Jason Zimba

Back in 2009, a Google search on the term “3.OA.7” wouldn’t have returned very much. Today, this same search yields dozens of pages of hits. What has changed? And what, exactly, is “3.OA.7” anyway?

Here’s what has changed: after thirty years of working separately to define K–12 learning goals for math and reading, state education leaders decided to work together beginning in 2009. More than forty states have now succeeded in writing and adopting a shared set of learning expectations for the core subjects of mathematics and English language arts/literacy. These new expectations are called the Common Core State Standards. I was a lead author for the math standards, a job that involved working closely not only with my two coauthors, but also with hundreds of state and national experts, mathematicians, teachers, nationwide educator organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and both of the national teacher unions. Readers of Force and Motion: An Illustrated Guide to Newton’s Laws, my introductory physics textbook, which was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, might have been surprised to see that my next act of authorship would be a state policy document, rather than a scientific work. In some ways I was surprised too, but in fact this wasn’t my first time working in K-12 education.

States have had standards for mathematics for a long time, but the Common Core standards represent an advance. Unlike previous standards, they are based on research about high performing countries and about college and career readiness. Recently, a peer-reviewed study by a leading expert on international mathematics performance compared the grades and topics in the Common Core to high performing countries in grades K–8. The agreement was found to be high. Moreover, no state’s previous standards were as close a match to the high-performing countries as the Common Core. The same study found that states whose previous standards more closely matched the Common Core tended to have higher NAEP scores.

The standards are supported by teachers. In national surveys, strong majorities of teachers say they are enthusiastic about implementing the standards in their classrooms. And the presidents of every major mathematical society in America strongly support the Common Core, saying that “these rigorous new standards hold the promise of elevating the mathematical knowledge and skill of every young American to levels competitive with the best in the world.”

The author (left) working with teachers who are putting the Common Core State Standards into practice

Before anyone gets too excited, however, remember that standards are only a blueprint. In many ways, the edifice has yet to be built. While teachers express support for the learning goals in the Common Core, they also express concerns about the materials and supports that are currently available for meeting those goals. Unfortunately, U.S. textbooks have been a mile wide and an inch deep, our schools of education often haven’t provided the right preparation for future teachers of mathematics, and our assessment developers have seldom created tests that showcase mathematics or reward teachers for good work.

That is where states are today, but that is not where they have to remain. Widely shared goals give the fragmented education sector a shared agenda for strengthening practitioners’ mathematical knowledge; for improving the tests we rely on to know how we are doing; for accumulating the research to resolve important questions about teaching and learning; and for achieving a rational materials marketplace in which schools more reliably choose to purchase the tools that actually work best.

Over the past year, the standards have become a hot political topic. Within the Tea Party, the standards are viewed as a Federal takeover, if not a U.N. conspiracy. Even the saner public debate sometimes fails to distinguish between the question of what the standards ought to be vs. the important but separate question about sound testing and accountability policies. If anything, the public conversation about the standards will probably heat up even more in 2014.

Six years ago, before the Common Core was developed, a national education panel characterized mathematics education in America as “broken.” Repairing it will be a long-term project. But with the widespread adoption of the Common Core, we can finally say that the project has begun.

And by the way—what, exactly, is “3.OA.7”? Here, let me Google that for you.

Jason Zimba is the author of Force and Motion: An Illustrated Guide to Newton’s Laws. Formerly a mathematical physicist, he was a lead author of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and is a founding partner of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization that designs actions based on evidence to raise student achievement.