Common Core math implementation: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Jennifer Bay-Williams

The Fordham Institute’s recent study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, took a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. Using focus groups and a survey of teachers, Ann Duffett, David Griffith, and I gleaned valuable insights that ranged from good to bad to ugly. As we approach the forthcoming school year and 150,000 teachers prepare to teach math to students from kindergarten through eighth grade, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve learned.

Let’s start with the good. With few exceptions, educators are very knowledgeable about what content is considered “grade-level” for the grades they teach, and they are prioritizing content that the standards designate as “critical areas.” Teachers are also paying closer attention to applications, student use of language in the math classroom, and increased use of the number line. Across CCSS states, rigor, consistency, and cohesion in K–8 mathematics has increased—a very good (and necessary) thing!

Teachers are also spending more time collaborating, especially with their grade-level colleagues. Working together leads to better curriculum design (e.g., how much time to spend on a particular topic), better instruction, and more consistency across teachers in the same school and/or district.

Educators are also focusing more extensively on strategies for teaching procedures. This helps increase procedural fluency by giving students a repertoire of strategies and demonstrating when to use them to efficiently and accurately solve problems.

But these new strategies have also had some regrettable collateral consequences. Yes, teachers are teaching more of them. There’s more pressure to do so, however, and little guidance on which problem-solving strategies to prioritize, how many might be appropriate for a particular topic, and (most importantly) why students benefit from knowing more than one approach.

This has created a second problem: Parents are less able to help their children with homework. Without a strong justification from a teacher for why their children are using non-standard algorithms, and without resources to understand the approach themselves, parents are not going to support change. Educators are often key implementers of reforms; in the case of Common Core math, we’ve neglected to bring parents and our communities along with us—at great cost.

The stress in middle schools is also beginning to show. These grades may have had the most dramatic increase in rigor across K–12 mathematics standards, and their teachers are still inheriting students who had to transition sometime in elementary school (potentially generating learning gaps). So it’s no surprise that many middle school teachers see their students with heightened anxiety levels and think too many students will fall short of the standards’ high expectations.

Finally, the production of Common Core-aligned curricular materials has lagged. We found that teachers are using a wide variety of different resources—and in many schools, different materials are being used in different grades. So while teachers are trying to focus on grade-level content, the textbooks they are relying on vary greatly. Some are even patching together items from various sources themselves, creating amalgamated materials that may not meet the standards’ intended rigor.

To be sure, change is often messy. And there are some significant bright spots in states’ implementation of Common Core’s math standards. Yet the optimal balance between conceptual understanding, fluency of procedures, and the application of mathematics still eludes too many teachers.

Our report points to some important next steps we can take. First, we ought to provide more guidance on which strategies teachers must prioritize for specific content areas. For example, which “place value” strategies might be the best ones to explicitly develop with students, and how can educators do that effectively? And how might these unfamiliar strategies (along with justifications for why they are needed) be shared with parents?

Second, as teachers continue to pull teaching strategies and materials from multiple sources, more guidance is needed to influence teachers’ choices. For instance, evaluation tools can help teachers determine whether their activities and lessons actually incorporate appropriate mathematical practices, address the optimal balance of concepts and procedures, or focus on procedural fluency in its entirety. Another insufficiently tapped resource is middle school teachers, whose experiences can help us understand necessary and effective changes in elementary-grade practices.

Finally, six years in, let’s celebrate the good that has been accomplished, such as our country’s historic levels of coherence and rigor. Stories of this progress ought to be shared with all audiences—not just educators. Our efforts are leaving students better prepared for mathematics than ever before.

Celebrating implementation’s good effects, as well as fixing the bad and ugly ones, are key steps in not only ending the math wars, but also in developing mathematically proficient, globally competitive, and college- and career-ready students. In other words, better implementation is vital to ensuring that the Common Core accomplishes its intended purpose.

Jennifer Bay-Williams is the department chair at the University of Louisville’s Department of Middle and Secondary Education. She is also the author, with Ann Duffett and David Griffith, of the Fordham Institute’s recent report Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey.