Saturday, July 17, 2010


By John Fensterwald in The Educated Guess 

July 16th, 2010 -- Staring at a midnight deadline before going out of business, a state academic standards commission last night endorsed and fortified the national common core standards in English language arts and math, with modifications  that will set up students for taking a complete Algebra I course in eighth grade.

Creating the latter avoided a collision with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who appointed a majority of the 21-member California Academic Content Standards Commission and demanded eighth grade algebra as his bottom line. His undersecretary of education, Kathy Gaither, who time and again reinforced that point at  commission meetings, indicated she was pleased with the outcome.

The common core standards split algebra between eighth and ninth grades, so California, where 60 percent of students already take Algebra I in seventh or eighth grade,  would continue to be out of sync with much of the nation – though in concert with some high-achieving nations in math, like Singapore.

The State Board of Education will have the final say, and will take up the commission’s recommendations Aug. 2. But under rules created by the Legislature, it must either accept or reject the commission’s package intact. If it’s approved, California would join the 25 states that have  adopted the common core ­ so far – the first step toward  a de facto national curriculum in English and math,  fulfilling a 20-year movement to bring uniformity to vastly disparate state standards. Common textbooks and tests will follow.

The common core initiative’s sponsors, the National Governors Assn. and the Council of Chief State School Officers, permit states to add up to 15 percent more standards.  California’s commission used that authority liberally, grafting on sections of the state’s generally acclaimed rigorous standards.  It added standards for penmanship, formal presentations and oral recitations to the common core English language arts standards, and significant numbers of math standards in algebra and advanced subjects.

Agreement did not come easily. Over the past month, California’s commission labored through intense pressure of tight deadlines, frustrations, fundamental disagreements and even accusations of bad faith. As of Wednesday night, commissioners had gone through only the kindergarten and first grade standards in math, after squandering hours debating how to frame eighth grade math.

That left the contentious issues and bulk of the work for Thursday, the last day.

The breakthrough came when commissioners coalesced in agreement that the primary aim of K-7 standards is to prepare all students for algebra in eighth grade, to put students on a path to take at least three, and for many, four, years of high school math needed to assure their spot at a UC or CSU campus.  Pre-algebra would be offered to those who still lack the skills..

Even then, progress was slow and tedious.  Commissioners came to resent – and automatically vote down – many motions  by  Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto, and Bill Evers, a researcher at the Hoover Institution, to rewrite common core standards to look like California’s math standards, which they helped write and regard as better. (Though they lost most battles, in a sense they won the war, since they too were the loudest advocates of eighth-grade algebra.)

Their claims that California standards were more rigorous were vigorously disputed by Scott Farrand, a math professor at California State University, Sacramento, and Heather Calahan, lecturer and executive director of a center for mathematics and teaching at UCLA. They and others argued that common core standards were carefully written with a coherent logic that shouldn’t be undermined or tampered with.

The commission ended up adopting both common core eighth grade standards, which include parts of algebra and geometry, and crafting a complete set of algebra standards by combining common core’s eighth and ninth grade algebra standards with all but a few California algebra standards. Together, the 63 standards are enough to craft a pre-algebra and algebra courses ­ – a job others must now do.

The commission also shifted a handful of eighth grade common core standards to seventh grade and seventh grade common core standards to sixth, in order to strengthen preparation for algebra.

Prospect of better preparation

Students currently take a hodgepodge of algebra and pre-algebra courses. Some students repeat sixth and seventh grade math in eighth grade while others take algebra lite. Many others, because of poor preparation, repeat algebra in ninth grade and grow to dislike math. The new system offers the hope of strong pre-algebra standards and a uniform algebra course.

But it has detractors. Both Wurman and Evers voted against the final package. Evers  criticized the seventh grade standards as inadequate preparation for algebra and the omission or shift to Algebra II of several key California Algebra 1 standards. Wurman said that the state will end up spending $2 billion in developing curricula and assessments for math standards that are, at best, no better than what we have now.

Patricia Rucker, lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, said the creation of both pre-algebra and an algebra courses in eighth grade raise the specter of once again tracking students minority and low-income students. CTA would oppose the math standards for this reason, she said.

Commissioner Chuck Weis, superintendent of Santa Clara County, acknowledged that it is a concern, but said he would do all he could to prevent that from happening. The goal –and common core may help to achieve it – is to make more students truly ready for algebra.

The commission all but ran out of time to examine high school math subjects beyond Algebra I, but, by extending their meeting from 3 p.m. to near midnight and forgoing dinner, they identified weaknesses in common core’s Algebra II, trigonometry and particularly geometry standards, and, taking  Calahan’s and Wurman’s suggestions, bolstered them with the addition of  key California standards.

The commission was established by the Legislature in January as part of the state’s effort to compete for Race to the Top money. But after Schwarzenegger delayed his 11 appointments for months, the uncompensated commissioners didn’t convene until last month and scheduled only six days of meetings. Credit all of them for their efforts  but especially the two teams of philosophical rivals — Calahan and Forrand, and Wurman and Evers – as well as the staff of the Sacramento County Office of Education,  for their detailed analyses and thankless hours of hard work.

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