Cover Story
UNUSUAL: Lucy Crossin shows old homework as mom Heather looks on.
Perry Reichanadter/Genesis
UNUSUAL: Lucy Crossin shows old homework as mom Heather looks on.

Uncommon uprising

Education | A math problem sparked a statewide revolt against new public education standards in Indiana. And that revolt against Common Core has now gone national

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

Two years ago in September, Heather Crossin’s 8-year-old daughter Lucy came home from her Catholic school in Indianapolis with a math problem that seemed unusual.

“Bridge A is 407 feet long. Bridge B is 448 feet long,” the problem read. “Which bridge is longer? How do you know?”

“Bridge B is longer,” Crossin’s daughter had written. “I found this out by just looking at the number and seeing that 448 is greater than 407.”

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The youngster’s answer was mostly wrong: According to her new textbook, enVisionMATH Common Core, she was supposed to compare the hundreds column, the tens column, and the ones column individually. The teacher gave her one point out of three.

“To me that was a reasonable answer for a third-grader,” says Crossin, 47, who complained to the school principal, along with other parents, about unfamiliar teaching techniques in the new math books. The principal said the school had no choice but to use them—the books were aligned with Common Core, a new set of mathematics and English language arts standards Indiana had recently adopted. The new standards would be reflected in state assessment tests many private-school students had to take.

That marked Crossin’s introduction to the Common Core State Standards, a uniform set of K-12 education standards 45 states have adopted. Ever since, Crossin and another mom from her school have led a grassroots fight against the standards in Indiana. This year they achieved a temporary victory when the state decided to pause Common Core adoption. Across the country, activists like Crossin have sparked state-by-state revolts against Common Core, threatening to cripple a broad movement toward universal education standards advocates say will improve American classrooms.

Although an August PDK-Gallup poll found two out of three Americans have never heard of Common Core, the debate has grown hot: Proponents and opponents accuse one another of misinformation or lying. Because Common Core is poised to transform statewide and nationwide assessment tests, public schools, private schools, and even homeschoolers will feel the impact.

The problem: American students lag internationally in math and reading skills, ranking 25th and 14th, respectively. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 35 percent of eighth-graders performed at grade level or higher in math, and 34 percent did so in English.

The new standards are supposed to boost K-12 academics and produce college-ready graduates. Common Core standards are not curriculum: They don’t dictate what textbooks or resources teachers must use. Instead, they outline what students should know at each grade level.

For example, the Common Core math standards say third-grade students should be able to “fluently add and subtract within 1,000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” The English standards say they should “recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.”

High-school students should “prove theorems about triangles” and “demonstrate knowledge of ... foundational works of American literature,” among numerous other requirements for geometry, algebra, literature, reading comprehension, and writing. (Common Core does not cover science or history.)

Parents like Heather Crossin say the standards teach “fuzzy math” and conceptual techniques that confuse their children. One prominent mathematician has complained the standards don’t require students to learn algebra by eighth grade. Another, James Milgram, a member of the Core’s math validation committee, refused to sign off on the standards, saying they “reflect very low expectations.”

Others say the Core’s new emphasis on “informational texts,” or nonfiction works, means teachers must assign fewer classics like Treasure Island. They warn Common Core’s suggested reading list for high-school students includes The Bluest Eye, an arguably pornographic 1970 novel by Toni Morrison.

Common Core criticism isn’t universal, though. Top proponents include the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Both support school-choice reforms like charter schools and vouchers for low-income students.

“They’re not perfect, but they’re miles better than what most states had,” Michael Petrilli, the executive vice president of Fordham, says of the new standards. “We have studied state standards for 15 years. ... Over time they weren’t getting any better.” When Fordham analyzed Common Core, it determined the standards were superior to those in three-quarters of the states. “Even the opponents of the Common Core will admit that.”

In spite of the concerns some parents and experts have with Common Core addition and algebra, 15 member societies of the Washington, D.C.–based Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences have endorsed the new math standards.

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