Common Core Math: Education and the Clinical Trial

Writing in The Washington Post on April 10, 2016, the veteran education journalist and columnist Jay Mathews recently reported on the distinctly confusing roll out of The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics in California, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He focused on one of the crucial elements in the new standards: the delay in the teaching of Algebra until high school. Trying to understand why this might be a good idea, he found explanations that were at best, “inscrutable” on district websites, and then heard Richard Carranza, Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, tell a group of parents concerned about Common Core that in essence, they should trust the experts. And… that Common Core is “the Good Housekeeping seal of approval of our teachers.”

In my view, the definitive analysis of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics for a “common reader” like me is an op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal in 2014 by Professor Marina Ratner, Professor Emerita of Mathematics at UC Berkeley. A highly distinguished academic, she also happens to be the vigilant grandmother of a boy in the Berkeley public school system. Her analysis is devastating: the new standards represent a significant lowering of expectations for states like California and Massachusetts (the latter has since withdrawn from the group of states that are implementing Common Core). Taught to satisfy lowered expectations, these children will struggle to gain admittance to the kinds of colleges to which they and their parents aspire, or if they do gain admission, they will struggle mightily to master the content. More than that, the new Common Core standards in no way enable our children to compete with the strong math learning cultures elsewhere in the world.

As such, the Common Core increasingly looks like the latest very expensive educational fad. I used to think that such fads could be explained by the gap between idea and reality, thought and implementation. Ideas after all are pretty easy… as it is the successful doing that is the hard part. But re-reading Professor Ratner’s article, I was struck by a sentence to which I had previously given little attention. On first learning about Common Core she is intrigued and wants to know what is “special” about the new standards, for:

“Otherwise, why not adopt the curriculum and the excellent textbooks of highly achieving countries in math instead of putting millions of dollars into creating something new.”

This rang a bell for me. I recently heard Andreas Schleicher (Division head of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment [PISA]) speak at a Global Education and Skills Conference. One of his themes was his frustration that education innovation today is where medicine was 150 years ago. (I have no idea what Andreas Schleicher’s views are on Common Core, by the way). Medicine since that time has developed a whole framework of methodologies to produce and verify evidence-based innovation.

Yet where are the clinical trials in the world of education? An advance in the treatment of cancer is developed in China or Switzerland… and everyone copies it. Why not? Cancer is cancer whether one is American or Russian or Korean. Yet in education we create cultural boundaries and barriers in our minds and in our systems. We insist that education is a matter of domestic policy – and fervently localized at that.

This is the nail that Professor Ratner hit on the head in her WSJ piece: the inward-looking vision of an education establishment that cannot see beyond the border. If another country has a great textbook and curriculum, tried and proven to produce great results… why not just use that, too? (No new revenue for U.S. textbook companies might be one answer.) The massive disappointment of Common Core is not that it is one more fad, one more idea that fails in the deed, but that it had no clinical trial. It just landed like a meteorite.

In this context, what sets the BASIS.ed learning network apart from traditional public school districts, traditional stand-alone private schools, and other large international education groups, is the fact that our learning culture is grounded in the evidence-based innovation of what works daily in the classroom. We use technology to conduct and assess these trials.

BELA (BASIS Educational and Learning Assessment) is the technology platform that all our teachers use to create their syllabi and lesson plans, and to share the results of their assessments. BELA allows us to mobilize knowledge: think of it as simply a platform that creates a common language for curricular knowledge mobilization across our international network of schools. It is how we crowd source curricular innovation, a real-time clinical trial of curricular richness that gives our faculty a high degree of professional autonomy in a collaborative intellectual culture and a professional culture of accountability.

BELA has been a labor of love for many years now within BASIS.ed. The story of its development is one of vision confronting the limits of budget, the limits of technical capacity, the limits of sheer human patience. Above all it is a platform that has been used, abused, battered, built, and ultimately seasoned by our teachers. It is that trial-by-use that has made it what it is today.

Perhaps that is the deepest disappointment of the drama of Common Core. An education establishment that conceives of itself as a disruptive force is still trapped in an old educational prejudice: if it works in theory and the right people agree, who cares about the practice!

Dr. Q. Mark Reford was born in Ireland and educated at Oxford where he earned a double first in English, and wrote his D.Phil. on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. He taught at Oxford University, Stanford University Program in Oxford, Moscow University, and the Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow before moving to the United States. He has held leadership positions at a series of prestigious private schools in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Texas. As founding CEO of BASIS Independent, Dr. Reford led the opening of the flagship institutions in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, and currently serves as Chief Business Development and Brand Officer for BASIS Ventures.

Dr. Q Mark Reford

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