Common Core Math: when the how undermines the what

written by Salimah Samji

Without the how, the what remains fiction — often compelling fiction. Development is littered with examples of projects/reforms that have failed because no one systematically thought through how the project/reform would actually be implemented given the local capacity and context. The common assumption is that if you design a technically sound project then implementation will magically happen by itself. Others believe that implementation happens by edict. The reality is that the mundane, while ordinary, banal and boring, can be the key to getting things done in development.

Elizabeth Green in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine makes a similar argument about the Common Core math standards — the new math, in the absence of new teaching, will lead to failure. The traditional approach to teaching math which involves memorizing lists of rules, does not work. It turns out, we already know this and attempts to find better ways to teach math can be traced back to the 1800s, with the most recent efforts in the 1960s and 1980s.

The key problem is numeracy – the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. Green’s research finds that America ranks in the bottom 5 of 20 countries in numeracy (a 2012 study comparing 16-65 year olds), and on national tests, approximately 67% of 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in math. Clearly all the past attempts of trying to teach “new math” have failed. In order for the latest version of new math to be successful, the teachers need to fully understand the new standards. They need training and support. In practice however, “training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support. Textbooks, once again, have received only surface adjustments.”

Japan, has been very successful in implementing a similar approach to the Common Core. Green highlights that the teachers depend on jugyokenkyu or lesson study to perfect their teaching skills. This process includes planning a lesson, teaching it in front of an audience of students and other teachers, followed by a discussion of what worked — experiential learning with very tight feedback loops. The best discussions the Japanese teachers had were the most microscopic, minute-by-minute recollections of what had occurred, with commentary … essentially, the mundane!

Changing standards alone is not enough to create or sustain change. There is a need to address the existing delivery infrastructure, to build capacity and to allow for local experimentation, learning, iteration and adaptation. This is a process which takes time and cannot be done overnight, but it has the greatest chance of success.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). You can also watch our BSC video series.

One thought on “Common Core Math: when the how undermines the what

  1. Japan is a small country of islands and the most of its territory is mountain. Because of the lack of natural resources, such as oil and gas, Japan must rely on the supply from other countries. Japan has nothing to sell in the world market other than valued added goods. That is, Japan imports raw material from abroad and creates high quality goods, such as computers, automobiles and home appliances. Constant value adding through modification, adjustment and up-grading is indispensable to survive for Japanese. In this sense, I believe that PDIA type approach fits Japanese mind.

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