Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reservations About A New "Common Core" Math Program

To begin with: yes, my last blog post was an April Fools joke! I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some people thought I was serious-- in a district that experiments with "balanced grading"  and "critical race theory", it can sometimes be hard to distinguish spoof from reality.  But rest assured, when I am on the school board, your children will not be deprived of bathrooms.

More seriously, this week's Curriculum Committee meeting consisted of a report-out on the adoption plans for the new middle school math curriculum. This was the product of a 2-year effort by a panel of teachers & administrators, who clearly put a lot of time and effort into reviewing the various choices and choosing a suitable replacement program. The one chosen was called Core Connections College Prep Mathematics (CPM); you can read lots of details at their website, . The committee was asked to listen to the report and then vote on recommending it to the school board.
Coming into this meeting, I had a lot of concerns. This was the first time HSD middle school math would be compliant with the Common Core, a new national set of standards that has been widely criticized for providing watered-down or fuzzy math, and teaching kids to talk about math problems rather than actually solving them. Some aspects of the common core math program seem somewhat positive: an attention to recognizing structures, using appropriate tools and mathematical models, and looking for alternate solutions to problems. But other aspects are more disturbing, such as emphasis on group work, answering questions with subjective verbose explanations instead of clear answers, and failure to drill traditional math skills.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the teachers had good answers for many of my concerns: I have summarized my recollection of the major Q&As below.
  • Are we subjecting our kids to an unproven new educational fad? - No. While the Common Core is quite new, the CPM program actually dates back over 20 years, and has been continually taught and refined over that time.
  • Will the students really learn traditional math skills by going through this program, or just learn to BS their way through math discussions? The page has an impressive array of studies showing that, based on standardized tests based on traditional math, students in their program equal or exceed similar groups of students who went through traditional programs. And they also show in some cases that students who went through the CPM programs are more likely to go on to higher-level math classes.
  • Will the group work mean that my child is graded for other children's work? The teachers clarified that while the classwork will largely consist of students working together to solve problems, 80% of a student's grade will be determined by individual assessments. The remainder of the grade will be based on observed participation and on individual homework.
  • Will students not have to do math homework anymore? They will have regular homework exercises, reinforcing the principles learned in class.
  • How will parents be able to understand what their child is learning, if they were educated in a traditional math program? There was a very nice answer to this one: the CPM program publishes a "Parents' Guide" to accompany each textbook, to help parents guide their children through that lesson's homework assignment. The CPM website further offers supplementary podcasts with each lesson, so parents can get a full context of what their child was learning in school.
  • I heard that under Common Core, 8th graders no longer learn algebra. Will the TAG students be forced to slow down & sync with the group, instead of moving on to advanced math early? No! The CPM classes will have accelerated options, just like current classes do. And many of the concepts formerly in 9th-10th grade algebra are now moved to middle school, so the students will have a solid grounding for higher math.
Most of the committee voted to accept the report and recommend that the school board approve the adoption. However, I abstained from this vote, as I did not believe it appropriate to hold such a vote after solely hearing an advocacy presentation and not having a chance to research other points of view, or further discuss and deliberate out of the presence of the advocates.   After the meeting, I did some online research and found some disturbing information about the CPM program. I think the board should consider the following areas of concern when deciding whether to go forward with this curriculum:
  • Will students not have true math tests anymore? Apparently students will be responsible for an individual "closure activity" at the end of each unit. I am a quite worried about this one, as it sounds a bit fuzzy in comparison to a real math test. See examples at this website:  . While the closure activities (summarizing what you learned, drawing concept maps, etc) sound like nice reinforcement, I don't think they could possibly substitute for traditional tests in order to ensure that basic skills are mastered.
  • Is there real evidence that CPM students do equally well to non-CPM students on objective, nationally standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, etc? This seems to be missing from the many studies at
  • Will there be solid evidence that students are learning standard algorithms: long division, solving quadratic equations, etc? Standard algorithms, discovered historically after centuries of development and reasoning, are a core tool in our mathematical toolkit. If students move on to higher education knowing they can try 'alternative approaches' and don't have to quickly solve problems of known, structured types, they will be at a severe handicap in math, science, and engineering classes.
  • What about the strong CPM critiques from math and science professionals? There are some serious critiques of CPM available with a quick web search. These all seem to date from 10-15 years ago, so maybe the program has changed since then to fix the issues described-- but we need a clear statement that the adoption team was aware of these critiques, and has answers to the concerns within.

So, I would recommend to the school board that if we choose to adopt this new program, it would be with the following provisions:
  • The addition of periodic tests that measure individual proficiency in the traditional core algorithms that have theoretically been taught as a 'side effect' of the creative group work. Creative problem-solving and verbal reasoning are great-- but we have to make sure we are not discarding the real math.  
  • Detailed tracking of pre-CPM vs post-CPM scores on the PSAT, SAT, and similar objective tests. We need real yardsticks for comparison. Because the Common Core comes with its own assessment types, it will be very difficult to compare students who learned under the old and new curricula.
  • Detailed refutations of the CPM critiques linked above. We need solid evidence that these concerns have been addressed in the latest versions of the curriculum.


  1. Mr. Seligman,
    In our Facebook group you indicated that you would like to hear what we think of the blog post. While reading through your blog post, there were some serious concerns raised. I shall only cite one here:

    1) "Most of the committee voted to accept the report and recommend that the school board approve the adoption. However, I abstained from this vote, as I did not believe it appropriate to hold such a vote after solely hearing an advocacy presentation and not having a chance to research other points of view, or further discuss and deliberate out of the presence of the advocates".

    In the above quote, you indicated that you abstained from the vote. Does this mean you voted against the adoption of this new math curriculum? It is imperative that we have individuals on the school board who are not influenced by the popular vote and are willing to boldly say no to academic drivel, such as Common Core aligned math programs. You, as board members, are the only voice that the school district will hear. And we, as concerned parents, need to know that you are going to represent our interests wholly. Take a stand on either side, but please make it clear who you support.

    Jennifer Gallegos

  2. Hi Jennifer-- thanks for your comments.

    I abstained because, at the time of the vote, I wanted to be able to do further research on the topic, as all we had heard was a presentation advocating the new program. I will always abstain when requested to vote on a topic for which I feel there is key information missing.

    On the bigger question-- of whether ultimately I would vote for this as a board member-- the board is unfortunately in a bit of a bind. They have been mandated by the state to adopt a CC curriculum. If on the board, I would want to do some serious investigation as to how legally binding this really is; but currently, it looks like they have no choice in the matter. The board is obligated to comply with state law.

    If a CC curriculum is to be adopted, this CPM program seems like the least dangerous of the alternatives, due to the fact that they at least work to mitigate some of our concerns. The fact that they have a 20-year track record, have a halfway decent set of studies that seem to show students in their program learn traditional math skills as well, support accelerated programs, and produce a parents' guide, are all somewhat encouraging signs when compared to the general field of CC programs.

    I would want implementation of this program to be qualified by the requests I put at the end of the blog entry above, so at least we would be able to accumulate hard evidence on whether students are or are not acquiring traditional math skills. If the data show these skills are being lost, this would give us very high credibility to go to the legislature and demand that CC be rescinded.

  3. I am way down in the southwest in New Mexico and have been trying to find reviews on the CPM Common Core Algebra I that my, now freshman in HS, is using. I am unfortunate to find any current reviews from teachers using this curriculum. Did your district implement this school year? I was unable to get any of the links you provided in this blog post to work. I am concerned that this CC view point of non-proven mathematical experimental education will be very detrimental to our youth and result in an entire generation falling behind the eastern mathematical/science driven school of thought. All in all I just want to know how it is working for teachers and students in your district.

  4. Hi Dana-- We just started it at the junior high level this year, and haven't heard much feedback so far. Good luck in your research!

  5. Here is some feedback:
    CPM has been a huge disapointment for my daughter, An A student receiving a D in advanced Math 7. The teachers only give vocabulary definitions at the begining of class and work in groups every day in class.
    I never heard of the parent handbook until after I pulled my daughter from class. Every night for the first 7 weeks of school I was teaching math at home, because my smart daughter wasn't getting the concepts.

    ~ Julie Craig

  6. Julie-- Good to hear from you. After the recent meetings between district officials and parents, have the classes & your opinion seemed to change any, or are you still needing to teach math at home? Please email me ( to follow up. Thanks!