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The Common Core Math Standards: Implications for Teacher Preparation

Tom Luce
John Ewing
Charles Coble, Partner, The Third Mile Group & Co-Director, Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, APLU

When The Opportunity Equation report was issued in June 2009, the prospect that more than two-thirds of states would adopt common standards in K-12 mathematics within the next 15 months was almost unimaginable. Yet that is exactly the feat that states have accomplished through the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Widespread implementation of the Common Core holds the promise of guiding stronger mathematics instruction for all students and improving the performance of teachers, schools, and classrooms. But adoption of the Common Core is only a first step on the path toward successful implementation. The full value of the new standards will be realized only when other systemic changes—including the development and implementation of high-quality assessments, more effective systems of accountability, engaging and rigorous curricula and materials, and focused teacher preparation and ongoing learning—have been achieved. These challenges are formidable but not insurmountable; the rewards for U.S. students and our country are clear.

Preparing the K-12 teachers who will be responsible for delivering mathematics instruction on the level of  the new standards will be a significant challenge. The Opportunity Equation asked a number of leaders and innovators in teacher recruitment and preparation to share their thoughts about the implications of Common Core standards in mathematics for the preparation of K-12 teachers of mathematics.

Tom Luce
CEO, National Science and Math Initiative

The Common Core math standards show clearly that teachers of math in all grades must have much deeper content knowledge to teach math effectively and that content preparation needs to be tied closely with pedagogical training. Unfortunately, for far too many of our new and veteran teachers, that combination of content and pedagogy has not occurred. For this integration to happen, teacher preparation programs must change dramatically.

But such changes on a massive scale are not the responsibility of teachers, whose preparation by and large is limited by the programs that are offered by colleges and universities. Instead, it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to design and offer teacher preparation programs that actually prepare teachers to succeed with the challenging new standards (with rich content tied to content-specific pedagogy) and with students in a wide variety of communities.

To reach this goal, dramatic changes must occur in the priority given by higher education leaders to teacher preparation. That means a public commitment from the top of those institutions—the presidents, chancellors, and provosts—to produce well-prepared teachers who have mastered, at a minimum, the Common Core standards for the grade bands for which they will be credentialed to teach. And, this priority must be tied directly to significant incentives and accountability measures.

The importance of such a permanent, public commitment cannot be overstated.

Commitments can take the form of incentives and accountability. Incentives, especially in public institutions, can be in the form of state funding for teachers who show that they are prepared in both content and pedagogy tied, at the very least, to the Common Core standards. Accountability can be in the form of rewards (funding, space, and prestige) and recognition for preparing highly skilled teachers within faculty members’ higher education and professional communities.

As obvious as such changes might seem, they will not be easy to implement. To start the movement, we need a few leaders from higher education to step up and lead the way. Who will they be, and what will they do?

John Ewing
President, Math for America

The Common Core standards for mathematics provide exactly what they advertise—they are “core” (that is, basic) and they are “common,” now adopted by more than two-thirds of the states. Their development is new and welcome, and creating them is remarkable in and of itself. But the standards are still only a basic outline of what should be taught in K-12 mathematics.

Standards will bring common expectations for teaching and learning mathematics, but they will not solve all our problems. And they could be misused. We should be vigilant, for example, not to allow the new standards to accommodate underprepared or underperforming teachers by suggesting these are the only things a teacher must know to be “proficient.” The standards should not be used to provide rote recipes for lessons to prop up poor teachers. And the standards should not become yet another burden for teachers—a list of required topics without any context.

Instead, the standards should be an outline of the goals for students, and consequently the goals for teachers. To be effective, teachers need to flesh out the basic outline with both relevant content and innovative teaching strategies. Standards hold the promise of re-setting the floor (not the ceiling) so that all school-level mathematics teachers across the country know enough mathematics to be able to understand the material they teach in context—not just the individual pieces they are assigned to teach.

The common standards will be especially helpful for those who wrestle with the problems of preparing elementary teachers. Why elementary? Because across the country there has been a great deal of variation in standards, focus, and goals at the elementary level—much more than at secondary. But, in addition, the content preparation of elementary teachers is far more constrained than for secondary, and when you have a very limited opportunity for teaching content, you ought to know exactly what to teach. Standards will help to level the playing field and define the goals.

At the secondary level, the Common Core standards play a different role. Beginning in their preparation programs, teachers need to see how the standards are reflected in the design of curricula, in the expected skills of their students, and in teaching strategies needed to reach students with different needs. The standards help to frame all that a teacher learns, not to define precisely the material.

The Common Core standards should influence every part of every teacher preparation program for mathematics teachers. For that to happen at the secondary level, teachers themselves need to understand the standards. Teachers must have deep and appropriate content knowledge to reach that understanding; they must be adaptable, with enough mastery to teach students with a range of abilities; and they must have the ability to inspire at least some of their students to the highest levels of mathematical achievement. If the standards are to succeed in changing education, we must prepare our teachers to make them succeed.

One strategy to accomplish this is to ensure that great teachers are part of the preparation of the next generation of teachers. Great teachers feed off of one another – something we have seen often in our program at Math for America. The Common Core standards can foster that process because they provide a common framework for all teachers—new, early career, and experienced—to work together on perfecting their craft.

In all these ways, the standards are not merely a way to design curricula, but are a way to guide the creation of great mathematics teachers. At the elementary level, that might mean changing what teachers learn, but at every level, the standards require us to raise expectations of teachers, to foster more professional cooperation, and to think deeply about how teachers are prepared, nurtured, and supported in their work.

Ultimately, the Common Core standards are all about teachers.

Charles Coble, Partner, The Third Mile Group & Co-Director, Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, APLU
Jennifer Presley, Director, Science & Mathematics Education Policy, APLU

The states’ quick adoption of Common Core standards for mathematics poses vexing challenges and opportunities for higher education and its responsibility for teacher preparation. We believe the following changes must occur to prepare the next generation of teachers to understand, and thus create, instructional strategies that are informed by the standards:

The widespread adoption of standards across the states requires an intensive effort to make faculty members in both schools of education and schools of arts and sciences deeply aware of the Common Core standards—and soon. Attaining this awareness will be a challenge, especially in arts and sciences, since those faculty members are not normally engaged in learning about, nor aligning their curriculum with, K-12 course content requirements, much less state or federal requirements about school mathematics. Moreover, higher education faculty work in a culture that prizes academic freedom, which means that they themselves are much less subject to curriculum mandates than K-12 educators. Higher education faculty engaged in teacher preparation—particularly in public institutions—must understand the requirements of the systems where their students will work and be held accountable in order to train future teachers for the world of standards and accountability.

Unless a concerted effort is made to reach faculty and increase their awareness and buy in, perhaps through the use of new tools and prototypes that show what the standards are and what they mean for K-12 instruction, very little can be expected to happen regarding alignment to the Common Core math standards. The effort to advance faculty awareness and competence to respond could and should occur both within institutions of higher education, as well as through disciplinary societies, such as the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, that serve as the professional “home base” for higher education faculty.

There must be verifiable changes in university mathematics, science, and education curricula that reflect an understanding of the Common Core standards and how to address them in the classroom. Funding is needed to develop prototypes for courses, instructional materials, and faculty professional development—both in education and in arts and sciences departments. Adjustments in curriculum to prepare prospective mathematics teachers to implement the Common Core standards are particularly important.

Assessments that matter must be developed in association with teacher preparation programs. That is, performance assessments are needed that enable pre-service teachers in undergraduate, graduate, “traditional,” or alternative preparation programs to show their competence with new standards. For example, they should be able to show that they can design and deliver lesson plans effectively. Implicit in the development of such performance assessments is that faculty responsible for both content and pedagogical preparation of future teachers understand the Common Core standards.

Preparatory programs, regardless of the “portal” of entry (undergraduate, graduate, “traditional,” alternative, or licensure-only programs), must be accountable for the knowledge and capacity of their programs’ graduates to implement the Common Core standards in their classrooms. Currently, weak state data systems impede the ability of teacher education programs to receive the evidence of K-12 student impact by program graduates that is needed. However, institutions of higher education should and could be stronger advocates for better data systems that would allow programs to assess the impact of their graduates or program completers on student achievement.

We must commit the time, cost, and effort required to successfully bring about the big changes required.

Each of these recommendations poses a number of challenges that emanate from the existing culture of academic freedom in higher education. But without widespread commitment to clear, high goals, coupled with strategies to design, fund, and implement work toward them in a timely way, a new generation of math and science teachers will lose an opportunity to change the course of STEM education in the nation’s schools.