Opinion

NC ditched Common Core. Now its confusing math standards fall short.

Changing how math is taught in Wake County schools

Stephanie Herndon, an 8th-grade teacher at Leesville Road Middle School In Raleigh, explains how the new materials from the Mathematics Vision Project is changing how math is taught in Wake County.
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Stephanie Herndon, an 8th-grade teacher at Leesville Road Middle School In Raleigh, explains how the new materials from the Mathematics Vision Project is changing how math is taught in Wake County.

In 2017, North Carolina adopted new math and reading standards, after deciding to “un-adopt” the Common Core standards. In deciding to chart its own course, the state was well within its rights. But it still has a responsibility to make sure that the standards are clear and usable for teachers. And on that count, it is falling short.

Academic standards are the foundation on which much of public education rests. They dictate the knowledge and skills that students are expected to master, grade by grade, and communicate those expectations to educators, parents, curriculum writers, and other stakeholders. That’s why we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been reviewing state standards for over 20 years.

In our most recent review, which we published last month, our team of subject-matter experts rated North Carolina’s new English language arts standards “good,” meaning they would benefit from “targeted revisions” but are generally sensible. However, they rated North Carolina’s math standards “weak,” meaning they need “significant revisions.”

On the English language arts side, reviewers’ biggest complaint was that North Carolina has removed guidance that helps teachers determine if materials are challenging enough for particular grade levels, as well as the precise literary and information texts to which students should be exposed. For example, specifying that all students should read the Declaration of Independence.

However, things are worse on the math side, where the standards are presented in a manner that is confusing and, at times, problematic.

Specifically, the math standards are not organized as a coherent whole. For example, each grade level (K-8) has a standards document that includes the critical topics to be taught to students, a separate one-page document with the “major emphases of the grade,” and a document “unpacking the standards” that includes additional information for individual content standards, as well as grade-specific examples of how math is to be practiced.

This fragmented and disjointed approach makes it difficult for teachers, curriculum writers, and other stakeholders who need to see the big picture in order to ensure student success.

Fortunately, the standards as a whole were deemed rigorous and their shortcomings are fixable, with a bit of effort: On the English language arts side, directly reference or link to text complexity guidance within the standards. And designate specific literary and informational texts at all grade levels with which students should be familiar (or at minimum, provide exemplar texts for teacher consideration).

For math, create a single, unified kindergarten–12th grade standards document that includes an explanation of the overall structure of the standards, as well as the information about critical topics, progressions, and the like that is currently located in the “Instructional Resources.”

Teachers depend on the standards to develop their instruction. Curriculum writers depend on them as well to develop strong materials for North Carolina’s classrooms.

We urge superintendent Mark Johnson to address these fixes as part of his efforts to better support Tar Heel teachers.

Amber M. Northern is senior vice president for research and Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in Washington, DC
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