Common Core standards emphasize ‘math that matters most’

March 11, 2015

Jason Zimba, one of the lead authors of the Common Core State Standards in math, says the benchmarks provide the first authentic guide to a college-oriented K-12 education

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EdSource is conducting a series of interviews featuring educators’ experiences with the Common Core State Standards. For more information about the Common Core, check out our guide.

Jason Zimba, 45, a leading author of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, grew up in suburban Detroit as the son of a waitress and a cook in a truck-stop diner, and was the first member of his family to attend college. He has a bachelor’s degree, with a double major in mathematics and astrophysics, from Williams College in Massachusetts, a master’s degree in mathematics from Oxford University, and a PhD in mathematical physics from the University of California at Berkeley. Zimba has taught physics at Bennington College in Vermont and math to high-school students in Oakland, through the Upward Bound program, and to inmates at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. He currently works full time to support the Common Core through the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners in New York City. He answered EdSource’s questions about the Common Core in interviews by telephone and email. Both the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

You’ve been working on these new standards for nearly a decade. What makes you personally so motivated about education reform?

I’ve always understood the importance of education, ever since I was young. My parents weren’t educated people, but in addition to being extremely hard workers, they were smart, curious and intellectually alive. They instilled in all of us tremendous respect for education – not only as something important to have as a benefit of a more prosperous life, but as something essential to have for the sake of one’s interior life.

“Under the new standards, things are being done at the proper time, instead of everything being done at once, which was the previous model.”

Although our house was small, there was always dedicated space for desks for schoolwork. And although our family budget was limited, there were plenty of reference books, a toy telescope, a science kit and a home computer – a Commodore VIC-20 with 3 K of memory. There’s no telling how they even knew that a computer was a smart thing to buy for a kid, but when I was 12 I must have spent a thousand hours learning to code on it. My parents also gave us the example of their own characters. They were both curious and they read a lot. It’s true that our TV was on 24 hours a day, but it’s also true there was always a documentary on. I grew up with Jane Goodall, Joan and Alan Root, Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski and “The World at War.”

What do you think is the most significant change in the Common Core mathematics standards?

This is the first time we’ve had a set of standards in math that focuses our efforts strongly on the math that matters most. Of course the Common Core isn’t a curriculum. Publishers actually have to do the streamlining that the standards call for.

Under the new standards, things are being done at the proper time, instead of everything being done at once, which was the previous model. The elementary grades are reserved for mastery of arithmetic. Topics that used to distract from that in the early grades now come later, in middle school, where they can be handled at the appropriate level of sophistication.

One of the most pressing problems in education, in California and throughout America, is the achievement gap between affluent white and Asian students and Latinos, African-Americans, and children from low-income families. What is the hope that the Common Core State Standards will help narrow this divide?

You know, I think I would tell a story about this. I was working with a kindergarten teacher a while back, and she said, “I can see how this is the right math for kids who are going to college someday; but my students aren’t going to college.”

When I heard that, I thought, “You know what? It is important that we write down what’s necessary in order for students to be on the path to college, so they can be in front of everyone. The standards didn’t create the reality about what’s required to be college- and career-ready. They describe it. And I think it’s a very good thing for equity, that that description be public and shared. The standards are a map. They don’t blaze the trail for you. But if we don’t have the map, then we can’t really expect to get there.

We’ve been hearing concerns that the new standards risk actually widening the achievement gap. This is partly based on the initial scores in New York from the new Common Core-based tests.

Tests produce information, but they don’t produce facts on the ground. Those things predate the tests.

We haven’t had standards that accurately reflect the demands of college- and career-readiness, so I think we are going to see a bracing set of facts that were always there, but were never shown to us before.

How do you think the Common Core state standards are going to help students who aren’t college-bound, and maybe wouldn’t benefit from going to college?

The standards don’t assume that everybody is going to go to a four-year college. But most people today and in the future are going to need some kind of post-secondary education. And the standards aim to keep that option viable for everyone for a reasonable span of time. There’s an appropriate time for young people and their parents to make consequential life decisions, such as whether to go for some kind of post-secondary education or not, and the school system shouldn’t be making those decisions on behalf of kids and families while the kids are still in elementary school. And I’m not one of those people who pretends, you know, against the evidence of your own senses, that advanced math pops up all the time in everyday life; but it’s true that, to be skilled at modern jobs, you can’t be afraid of symbols. You can’t just shut down the way my mom said she did, for example, as soon as she saw an “x” in a problem.

“Different states have all approached implementation very differently, and I think we’re likely to see that some of those strategies were better than others.”

You know, there are a lot of debates in society, or in policy, or within business, where people throw around competing visions of, say, what’s going to happen if we do “x”? The best decisions tend to come from people who can not only identify factors in a situation, but be quantitative in talking about them. Like, these are the forces here. But one force is actually orders of magnitude larger than the other one. It’s when we can quantify that that we become much more powerful analysts, and it’s a sophisticated word, but necessary even in those humble household situations.

I would also say to remember that people who don’t go on to college do go on to have an interior life. Job titles come and job titles go, but math has been essential to education since classical times, and there’s a reason for that. I think it has something to do with the way math helps us learn to love truth, seek precision, prove one’s case. I don’t see that college students are the only people who benefit from that, and I don’t think my own parents would have stood for reserving those things to the college-educated.

Are there ways that Common Core standards actually make math more relevant immediately to the kids’ lives? Are there particular standards that will show kids how math affects their everyday existence?

It’s motivating for kids to see good, applied problems.

However, education is not the art of minimizing student complaints. Research shows the U.S. already spends more time than other countries in math class, making the math, quote-unquote, “relevant.” I think kids can see through that sometimes. They know when it’s just a sugar-coating for the pill, and that’s not motivating. And sometimes larding application on top of the concepts being taught just hides the ball. Just tell me the math I have to know. It can’t always be buried in context, or you can’t see it. So there’s a balance.

Science teachers and social-science teachers have jobs to do in reinforcing the math that kids are learning in the math classroom. But I think sometimes we ask the math teacher to do too much in this respect. “Come up with brilliant statistics examples.” Well, guess what? Statistics is a part of science. Statistical inference is something that happens all across the curriculum, but actually mathematicians don’t do it. So I do think we could be doing more across the curriculum in high school to make this come alive.

A number of critics of Common Core have said that the standards were rushed into implementation too quickly, and perhaps there should have been more time to try them out on a state level before they went national. Do you think that’s a valid criticism? Would you now go back and change anything in how this was done?

It would be a mistake to think that everything in the document is my own personal belief about what would be optimal. There were hundreds of people involved. But in terms of implementation, to me, the salient point is not about “too fast” or “too slow.” Different states have all approached implementation very differently, and I think we’re likely to see that some of those strategies were better than others.

We’ve heard it said that the standards demand a deeper understanding of math than many math teachers now have. In your travels, have you found this to be true? And what can be done?

In the community of people who have been trying to improve math education for decades, we hear over and over the inadequacy of the mathematical education that teachers receive before they set foot in the classroom. I think you have to start somewhere with this. And it’s clear to me that where you start is numbers and operations. I think our schools of education should zero in on this, and begin producing elementary-school teachers with a level of knowledge of early numbers and operations that’s comparable to teachers in other countries. The standards don’t by themselves solve this problem, of course; but at least we now have a blueprint for what teachers will teach, and therefore what they must know. A lot of countries have had that advantage for a long time.

After investing so much of your time and energy, and believing as you do in the standards’ promise, how worried are you that they could be caught up in politics, and that possibly all this work could be for naught?

I don’t spend a lot of time on the political aspects of the problem. I think the document stands or falls based on what’s written in it. Student Achievement Partners and myself have decided that the most important thing we can do is help teachers get going, and start teaching math and seeing the results – seeing what kids are capable of. Once a teacher has tasted that, it’s hard to turn back.

Finally, how can parents help students transition to the Common Core?

The first thing I would say is beware of misinformation – there is a lot of it out there. Parents should let their child’s teacher know if they have questions or concerns. And for their part, school leaders should reach out to parents to provide information about the school’s instructional program.

At home my wife and I try to support our kids’ learning in a number of ways:

Katherine Ellison covers the Common Core for EdSource.

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