Common Core


Math educator defends Common Core

BLUFFTON, Ohio—The immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics said Sept. 23 that she thinks “there’s a lot of misunderstanding” about the Common Core State Standards for math.

Speaking at Bluffton University, Linda Gojak addressed several of the points of contention with the Common Core. The national standards—for English and language arts as well as math—have been adopted by most states but have since been repealed by some and are being contested in others.   

Among the arguments against the Common Core are that it represents a federal takeover of public education and mandates how children will be taught. But Gojak, a math teacher for 28 years, disagreed, saying the initiative originated several years ago in the National Governors Association, and the standards don’t include anything about specific teaching methods.

The Common Core is “a set of guidelines for what students in each grade need to understand to be able to do,” said Gojak, now director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, Teaching and Technology at John Carroll University.

While local control of public schools is important, she said, there has been “a great discrepancy across states in student achievement in English and math.” As a result, governors started talking “about leveling the playing field across the country,” trying to help ensure—especially for students who move to a different state—that “everyone would have equity in educational opportunities,” she explained.

That was the original intent behind the Common Core, said Gojak. In math, she added, it is based “on what we know about how children learn,” which supports teaching them multiple strategies for arriving at the answer to a problem. And there are multiple ways, she maintained, saying that some students will never learn if there’s only one “right” way to get an answer.

Educators know more about how students learn than even 20 years ago, she continued, and that knowledge has been applied to the standards.

Gojak cited three, Common Core-related “instructional shifts” in math: increased rigor in helping students develop both understanding of “why math works the way it does,” along with skills and ability to relate to applications; coherence in making connections across content within and across grade levels; and focus on fewer standards, with a goal of deeper understanding.

The content standards describe what students should know and be able to do. A second set of standards, the so-called standards for mathematical practice, include making sense of problems and persevering in solving them; reasoning abstractly and quantitatively; constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others; and modeling with math and looking for the structure within it. The latter standards provide students with the “habits of mind” to develop understanding and the ability to think mathematically, she noted.

Gojak also pointed out connections between the math standards and those that have been proposed for science and engineering—all part of what has come to be called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Among the overlapping ideas are asking questions and developing and using models. “If you want to go into a technology field, science and math are keys to get you into those fields,” she reminded her Bluffton audience.

In math education, she said, “I think we’ve missed the boat in the past by not taking the time to implement important ideas in teaching and learning mathematics. I hope we don’t miss the boat with the opportunity that the Common Core standards provide.”

“It’s far from perfect,” she added later, “but it’s a good start.”