Plus c’est la même chose, plus c’est la même choCCSS

Re my last post, I just recalled another belabored concept: the concept of “the number sentence.” That was the first roadblock my older son encountered in elementary school math. Yes, he can add, subtract, multiply, and divide ahead of grade level…

But,”  his teacher added, with great concern, “He doesn’t know what a number sentence is.”

No question, my son, like many self-taught arithmeticians, was unfamiliar with the “number sentence” label. Who cares? But let’s not confuse labels with underlying concepts.

And does anyone need to learn the concept of a “number sentence” in isolation from actual math problems problems? Just let them do the math, and the concept will follow.

But “number sentences” are, of course, a darling of the Common Core Standards. This Out In Left Field post from 2015 is still relevant today, because plus ça change…

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même choCCSS

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg argues that the Common Core Standards change little: they’re just the latest instantiation of standardized school-accountability testing; that even states that have officially abandoned the Common Core still use tests that, de facto, are Common Core-aligned; and that the supposed shifts in math priorities wrought by the Common Core reflect trends that have long been in place–e.g., such concepts as “number sentences” and “making tens.”

But these eminently reasonable observations don’t justify Ellenberg’s reassuring tone. The main effect of the Common Core, I’ve argued is to further entrench dominant trends–most of which happen to be high problematic. While supporters of these trends are forever citing the Common Core State Standards as justification, they would endure even if the CCSS were to suddenly vanish. Constructionism would continue to extend its tentacles into more and more public, private, and parochial schools; math would continue to water itself down; group activities would continue to grow; and grit and other non-cognitive, so-called “21st century skills” would continue to dominate K12 learning objectives–well into the 21st century.

The latest reports I’ve heard from the trenches–from the latest batch of classroom teachers I’ve had as students–have confirmed this. Many of them submit lesson plans as their final projects, and these lesson plans invariably list several CCSS goals at the top–right above the “Essential Question” and the “Learning Objectives” sections. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear to me why a particular lesson maps, say, to CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.2.C (“Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses”) rather than CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.2.D (“Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic”). This year I probed a bit, asking my students about the challenge of mapping lessons to goals and ensuring that each of the many goals for whatever grade level they’re teaching is reflected in at least one of their lessons.

“Usually we create the lesson first, and then look up the goals and pick the most relevant one,” one student explained.

“How do you make sure you eventually cover all of them?”

“No one really checks, but usually we put in several standards per lesson, so eventually we probably cover them.”

Retrofitting lessons to standards might seem odd–until you realize what’s actually retrofitting what. And see the standards for what they are in practice: one gigantic retrofit to what’s already, ever more firmly, in place.

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