Jonathan Katz on Some Problems of Common Core Mathematics

Courtesy of Diane Ravitch:

Jonathan Katz taught mathematics in grades 6-12 for 24 years and has coached math teachers for the past nine years.

He prepared this essay for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of high schools that evaluates students by exhibitions, portfolios, and other examples of student work. The Consortium takes a full array of students and has demonstrated superior results as compared to schools judged solely by test scores.

What is of special concern is his description of the mismatch between the Common Core’s expectations for ninth-grade Algebra and students’ readiness for those expectations.

Here is a key excerpt…

[The Common Core standards seem] to honor the idea of problem solving and the many ways a student might engage with a problem. It seems to value the process of problem solving, the ins and outs one goes through as one tries to solve a problem and that different students will engage in different processes.

To implement such a standard, a teacher would need to present students with problems that allow for and encourage different approaches and different ways to think about a solution—what we call “open-ended problems.” Yet, when you look at the sample questions from the Fall 2013 NY State document you would be hard pressed to find an example of a real open-ended problem. Here is one example in which a situation is presented and three questions are then posed.

Max purchased a box of green tea mints. The nutrition label on the box stated that a serving of three mints contains a total of 10 Calories.

a) On the axes below, graph the function, C, where C (x) represents the number of Calories in x mints.

b) Write an equation that represents C (x).

c) A full box of mints contains 180 Calories. Use the equation to determine the total number of mints in the box.

A situation is presented to the students but then they are told how to solve it and via a method that in reality few people would even employ (who would create a graph then a function to find out the number of full mints in the box?). If you are told what to do, how can we call this solving a problem? (This would have been a very easy problem for most students if they were able to solve it any way they chose which is what we do in real life.) In fact, all eight problems in the same of Regents questions follow the same pattern. Students are told they have to create the equation (or inequality or system of inequalities or graph) to answer the question. Thus there is no real problem solving going on—merely the following of a particular procedure or the answering of a bunch of questions. Why don’t we use problems where there is a real need for an algebraic approach? Why would we ask students to look at a simple situation then force them to use an algebraic approach, which complicates the situation? We should be helping students to see that the power of algebra is that is gives us the means of solving problems that we would have great difficulty solving arithmetically.

If we were truly trying to find out if our students are developing the ability to problem solve, we would never create questions of this nature. They would be more open-ended so students had the chance to show how they think and approach a problematic situation. But that can’t happen on a test where everyone is instructed to do the same thing so we can “measure” each student’s understanding of a particular standard. This is not real mathematics and a contradiction of the Common Core Standards of Mathematical Practice!

Why does this matter? The consequences are huge, and not just for students. Consider the message we are sending to teachers. Since students will be assessed on following given procedures rather than how they strategize and reason through a problem, then teachers’ lessons will become all about following procedures to prepare their students for an exam they must pass in order to graduate. This will simply perpetuate the same failing math teaching practices we had in the past, will compound the dislike that students already have for math class, and will not in any way help our students to develop mathematical thinking.


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