Indiana's Current Dilemma: College Readiness versus STEM Readiness

In my previous post, I discussed the true meaning of Common Core’s “College Readiness” and I showed—using the words of Common Core’s own authors—the low level of its college-readiness definition and of its high school content in mathematics.

But what about the plus (“+”) standards? As already mentioned, those “+” standards go beyond what every student is supposed to study. Perhaps, if students take all those, too, they will be prepared to study calculus in college and have a reasonable chance of success in STEM? No such luck, says Jason Zimba, the Bennington professor and lead writer of the math standards.

“If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core,” he told the New Orleans Advocate.

What about highly motivated students who’d like to accelerate and take calculus before applying to the very selective colleges? No good news there, either. “AP Calculus is in conflict with the Common Core,” said the vice president in charge of AP courses at the College Board. It “lies outside the sequence” of the Common Core.

To longtime observers of the Common Core, none of this is too surprising. When the CCRS were written in 2009, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy had two representatives placed on the writing committees for ELA and math from day one. For a very long time, NCEE argued that American students are overeducated and that most of them should be steered into the workplace rather than into college. This pitch is also clear in NCEE’s recent report summarizing research that started in 2009, just as Common Core was being discussed:

Since a large fraction of community college students enrolled in the general studies track go on to four-year colleges, it is clear that for a substantial majority of high school graduates, being ready to be successful in the first year of a typical community college program is tantamount to being ready for both college and work. . . .

Indeed, community college first year programs of study typically assume that students have not mastered Algebra I. The most advanced mathematics content used in the vast majority of the first-year college programs we analyzed can reasonably be characterized as the mathematics associated with Algebra 1.25, that is some, but not all, of the topics usually associated with Algebra I, plus a few other topics, mostly related to geometry or statistics.

So there we have it. The Common Core from its inception has never been about true college readiness, despite its rhetoric. It never could have been, because those fake “college-ready” standards were planned to be high school graduation standards from the beginning. We know that only around a third of high school graduates are truly college-ready. It would be politically untenable for two-thirds of a high school cohort to fail graduation, and faking low-level “college-readiness” was the only way to avoid that disaster.

But what about the global competitiveness promised in Benchmarking for Success? What about preparing more students to earn science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) degrees? This question has baffled many. The recent NCEE report sheds some light on this question, too:

The high school mathematics curriculum is now centered on the teaching of a sequence of courses leading to calculus that includes Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. However, fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence in their college or in the workplace.

In other words, the dumbed down high school expectations should be “good enough” for 95 percent of American students. They and their careers belong to the non-academic workplace. True academic education should be reserved only for the select 5 percent elite—the future managers, scientists and engineers. And government bureaucrats, one presumes.

It turns out there is no true STEM preparation in the Common Core, after all. Period. The elite will have been educated in select schools—whether private or public—that will go much beyond the Common Core. This gives an interesting new meaning to the “common” in Common Core, does it not? Jim Milgram and Sandra Stotsky, both members of Common Core’s Validation Committee, discuss the details at length in their recent report Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Common Core standards is not their low academic level, or the fact that they will likely result in less STEM preparedness in America rather than more. Their worst damage is bound to come from the confusion they sow among teachers and parents as to what it really means to be “college ready.” By interpreting that readiness in the narrow and non-standard sense of community college readiness, the Common Core falsely assures parents that their children are on a path to college when they are not, and removes parental pressure from schools and kids.

Of necessity this will be particularly damaging to low SES students and first generation college aspiring students, whose families heavily rely on the school system for this type of information.

Indiana’s New Standards

But there is hope. Recently, Indiana became the first state to reject the Common Core and embark on an effort to write its own standards. So far, the results have been mixed. I’ll reserve my remarks to mathematics.

The first draft, released in February 2014, had been haphazardly slapped together by taking Common Core and piling many other standards on top of them. This resulted in bloated standards of 40, 50, and even 60 standards per grade. Many of them duplicated each other, sometime at the same grade, sometime at other grades.

By mid-March there was a second draft. It improves on the first somewhat, yet it still suffers from significant bloat. Specifically, the language was cleaned up a bit, and the standards were reduced in number. Unfortunately, however, much of the reduction comes not from removing standards of secondary and tertiary importance, but from lumping together disparate standards into large “super-standards” containing multiple parts. Even more worryingly, very little content has been accelerated. In the larger sense, the K-8 draft released in March still reflects Common Core grade-level content and progressions, two to four years behind international top achievers. Finally, the overly didactic and repetitive nature of the underlying Common Core has not been reined in, and the draft still suffers from pedagogical over-prescriptiveness.

The high school standards second draft looks somewhat better. In contrast with elementary and middle grades, a significant amount of missing content has been added to most courses. Again, though, much of the overly didactic and detailed Common Core language has not been removed. Lastly, while the content of early high school courses is largely complete, trigonometry and pre-calculus are still rather weak.

Despite all that, the high school draft represents a reasonable effort to put in sufficient content to support STEM and non-STEM students alike.

From the production of these drafts, one sees a couple of things. First, the timeline for their development is clearly too short. Good standard-writing takes time and it would be a pity if Indiana, which had such a highly praised, clear, and high standard before the Common Core, would end up with muddled, wordy, obese and incoherent standards due to the rush to meet an unreasonable time-line.

Second, it seems as if two factions are fighting within these drafts. One seems to be pushing to take the Common Core “as is,” treating its every word and its every sub-standard and its every example as sacred and unalterable. The other apparently wants to add what the Common Core missed, but also wants to add content that Common Core intentionally—and wisely—left out of certain grades, like data analysis. In other words, the elementary and middle grades standards do not build on what the Indiana 2006 draft included, but rather throw together Common Core, Indiana 2006, and many additional bits and ends of unclear provenance.

To put it bluntly, these drafts not only look like the camel that resulted from the work of a committee, but they look like a double-humped camel.

Unless someone gives this ongoing effort a clear direction and reasonable interim deadlines, it is hard to see Indiana ending up with a product of which Indianans can be proud.