As school children across California strap on their backpacks for another year, education officials in Sacramento are finalizing Common Core standards. Every state in the nation will be rolling out a version of these in 2014. Early in the process, California ambitiously decided to give its students a higher math standard. But now state officials are backing away from that idea.
RACHAEL MYROW: As school children across California strap on their backpacks for another year, education officials in Sacramento are finalizing Common Core standards. Every state in the nation will be rolling out a version of these in 2014. Early in the process, California ambitiously decided to give its students a higher math standard. But now state officials are backing away from that idea. John Fensterwald is here to explan why. He edits EdSource Today, an education news website. Thank you for joining us.
JOHN FENSTERWALD: Thank you.
MYROW: So for those of us who aren't parents or teachers, can you explain to us what Common Core standards are?
FENSTERWALD: It's been a goal for many people in Congress, and educators to have national standards for decades. It became more acute, I think the need with No Child Left Behind, as states began to lower their standards to avoid penalties. The Obama administration encouraged this, so two national organizations -- the National Governor's Association and chief education officers of the states -- created these Common Core standards in English language arts and math. Forty-five states have adopted them.
MYROW: Forty-five states have adopted them. I guess there's no such thing as an ideal set of standards, but what do folks around the world of education think about these standards?
FENSTERWALD: In Common Core, particularly in math, the creators looked around and took out what's the best practices and the best concepts that they've learned over the years, and placed it. It's really not rigorous or not, it's a different approach. It really stressed the conceptual knowledge of math. "Fewer standards and deeper" is the common phrase.
MYROW: Can you give us an example of how the Common Core standards will be different from the kinds of math standards that have governed California classrooms up until now?
FENSTERWALD: There will be fewer standards, and you will dwell at earlier grades on issues such as fractions and proportions, and much longer times so you have a fuller understanding. Students will be asked to explain their knowledge in ways that they couldn't in multiple ways in word problems and in modeling and in timelines, and in feedback to their teachers and their peers to show they really understand the concepts. So by the time they get to higher math, there won't be the missing elements we find now in California schools.
MYROW: So these Common Core conversations have been going on for a number of years now. In fact, it was back during the Schwarzenegger administration that some folks suggested the idea, California should push ahead of the rest of the nation and require algebra I for every eighth grader. Why did that seem like a good idea at the time?
FENSTERWALD: Well, those who had been pushing -- and it had sort of been state policy for about a decade -- have looked around and they said, well, some of the Asian nations that are competitive in technology ... Singapore, Korea ... they teach algebra at a younger age, so we should do that too if we want more scientists and engineers. It also became an equity issue. If poor kids and minority kids can take algebra too, just as students in wealthy districts. So that was the theory behind the push. Also, you were penalized as a district, in fact, if you didn't on your API scores. If you didn't offer algebra there was a slight penalty, so that was another impetus for more districts to do it. And in fact, that has happened over the past decade. Some people would say it's one of the great triumphs of California, the number of students who have taken algebra in eighth grade increased from about one-third to about two-thirds, and the rates of proficiency didn't drop, in fact they slightly increased.
MYROW: It seems like a good idea.
FENSTERWALD: There's always a but, and the but here is that still, about 50 percent of students aren't proficient as measured by their California standards test. And so the odds that if you have to repeat algebra in ninth grade, the odds that you will actually learn algebra decreases every year that you've taken it. If you've taken it in ninth grade, it's like one out of six students will become proficient the second time around.
MYROW: And so what are education officials talking about doing now?
FENSTERWALD: And so what happened was too years ago, when California adopted the Common Core standards, we've had this war, this dispute, of those that feel you should not enforce algebra in eighth grade and those who feel it's best. For eighth grade they adopted both, Common Core eighth grade standards and California algebra standards for eighth grade. So it's kind of a mess -- everyone knew it's kind of a mess and nobody had time to fix it. So here, two years later we're looking for a potential solution to that. And there's a bill which would authorize the state school board to go back and change the standards to sort of make sense of this mess. But the focus of this bill is a clear indication that if a state board's going to go back and do that, it should adopt the Common Core eighth grade which is really pre-algebra and not algebra.