In 2010, when the final Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were unveiled, our content experts found them worthy of praise, awarding the math standards an A-minus and the English language arts standards a B-plus. That meant that CCSS was “clearly superior” to the standards in the vast majority of states—and that the vast majority of American children would be better off if their schools taught them the content and skills they set forth.
Since then, we’ve remained steadfast in our belief that the standards, if adequately implemented and supported, could improve the educational trajectories and life prospects of all students. Yet our earnest, unequivocal support of the CCSS does not mean that we’re wearing rose-colored glasses. In fact, we’ve not been shy at all about exposing implementation warts over the last six years.
Our latest study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, also doesn’t pull any punches. It seeks to offer relevant, honest, and—we hope—practical findings on CCSS implementation. We examined whether teachers responsible for elementary and middle school math instruction in Common Core states have changed what and how they teach—and whether they’re seeing improvements in students’ math understanding as a result. (This is the math parallel to our English language arts study released in 2013.) It joins a growing body of research showing that teacher familiarity with the Common Core standards is growing, as is their acceptance of them. But there’s plenty of concern about implementation as well.
Successfully undertaking survey research that speaks to K–8 math teachers requires analysts who know the subject, who know teachers, and who also know survey design and analysis. Our trio of authors fits that bill: Jennifer Bay-Williams is a professor and department chair of middle and secondary education at the University of Louisville; Ann Duffett is a twenty-year veteran in the field of public opinion research; and David Griffith is a former teacher and a research and policy associate at Fordham.
This able group produced a fine report that you’ll want to read in its entirety. But here are our key takeaways:
- Most teachers are partial to the Common Core math standards, but they don’t think all of their students and their parents are. Teachers believe the standards will both improve their own content knowledge and enhance students’ math skills, prepare them to succeed in college, and bolster their ability to compete in a global economy. Yet they also say that pupils are “frustrated” by having to learn multiple methods of solving a problem, and they worry that some have “math anxiety” (especially in grades 6–8). And a whopping 85 percent say that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.” We know that teachers are the primary vehicle through which parents learn about the CCSS, so this raises a key question: How can they better help parents support their children’s success in math?
- Middle school teachers tend to have a more negative assessment of their students’ math abilities and the broader impact of the standards than their elementary school counterparts. We can’t know why. Perhaps it’s the obvious reason: Middle school standards are simply tougher than elementary standards. Perhaps it’s because more teachers in middle school have math degrees (versus elementary education degrees) and have a better handle on the math skills needed in the upper grades. Or maybe it’s because today’s middle school students did not “grow up” with these standards in earlier grades, and the transition has been difficult.
- We were surprised to find that elementary teachers tend to have more positive views of the potential benefits of CCSS-M and their impact on students. After all, we’ve heard many anecdotal reports of elementary teachers who feel that these standards are “developmentally inappropriate,” and it’s no secret that many primary teachers haven’t themselves studied a great deal of math. Yet 61 percent of K–2 teachers say they have fewer or about the same number of “students who have math anxiety” than before the CCSS-M, and 68 percent agree that “students are developing a stronger capacity to persevere in math and come up with solutions on their own.” It’s the middle school teachers who report more distress.
- Teaching multiple methods can yield multiple woes. The CCSS-M’s Standards for Mathematical Practice require that students “check their answers to problems using a different method.” And sure enough, 65 percent of K–5 teachers are teaching multiple methods more now than before the CCSS-M were implemented. But this change has had ramifications for both students and their parents, perhaps because parents simply don’t know “multiple methods” themselves—only what they were taught two or three decades ago. Our authors recommend that students practice traditional methods at home (moms and dads, bring back those flash cards!), but surely there are other ways to teach kids conceptual understanding without flummoxing them or their parents.
- Finally, the good news: Teachers are teaching Common Core math content at the grade levels that the CCSS-M specify. Though that may seem unsurprising, it is notable that teachers are able to identify from a list of topics (some of which are decoys) those that reflect the standards—and that they report teaching those topics at the grade levels in which they’re supposed to be taught. This finding echoes a study from earlier this year by Thomas Kane and colleagues in which 85 percent of teachers reported having good or excellent knowledge of the standards for the grades and subjects that they teach. Once upon a time, teachers shut their doors and did their own thing. Now we have many instructors teaching to the same high standards nationwide. This is something to celebrate.
These results should inspire several mid-course adjustments. The report offers various suggestions on this front, such as the need to clarify a role for memorization of math facts in the early grades. We hope that local and state officials, teachers, and teachers of teachers seize that opportunity.
The data here are mostly encouraging, even as they offer plenty of ideas for how to do better. If most teachers are implementing the standards, as they claim, we should expect to see improvements in student achievement going forward. Teachers are weary of the pendulum swings in schools; we must show more patience with the Common Core than we’ve demonstrated in the past. Let’s actually see this thing through.