Common Core Math Standards minus Good Teacher Prep equals Disaster

See all posts

You've got to hand it to the editors of American Educator, the AFT's official journal on education research. They are doing their level best to ensure teachers know what a revolution the adoption of the Common Core Standards portends for their profession. In the summer, they published two strong articles on the necessity of restoring academic content knowledge to its central place in teacher preparation. And in this fall's issue, they've published a compelling piece by Berkeley math professor emeritus Hung-Hsi Wu on what the Common Core Standards mean for teaching elementary math.

Until now, argues Wu, poorly designed state math standards created a vacuum filled by incoherent textbook school mathematics, or TSM for short. TSM is not actually math at all, but a grab bag of analogies and algorithms that gives students no sense of the deeper conceptual structure underlying real mathematics. No wonder, then, that many elementary students develop math phobia when confronted with apparently complex abstractions such as fractions.

Wu is optimistic that the Common Core Math Standards could emancipate students from TSM because they focus on the key concepts of math, rather than asking students to know trivial amounts about a lot of trivial matters. They also don't mistake how fast students progress to, let's say, algebra for actual rigor. He claims that we can build a truly numerate population on the basis of the common core.

The challenge, however, is that most elementary teachers themselves don't understand mathematics well enough to help their students master these standards. And since neither the authors of textbooks nor Wu's fellow mathematicians (of whom he is particularly critical) are willing to step into the breach to help teachers, the Common Core could well prove to be an opportunity lost.

Wu thinks the only way that elementary students will get a firm grasp on mathematics is to departmentalize elementary classrooms so that specially trained math specialists can ensure their students master the Common Core. Here Wu may be making the perfect the enemy of the good. We could substantially improve the effectiveness of new elementary teachers if teacher preparation programs required them to take strong courses in elementary mathematics. But while we may differ on the details of the solution, we completely agree with Wu that the Common Core will stand or fall on how well our teachers are prepared.