Interview with Bill McCallum, lead writer of Math Common Core
This is an interview I had on 2/4/2014 with Bill McCallum, who is a University Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and member of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona. Bill also led the Work Team which recently wrote the Mathematics Common Core State Standards, and was graciously willing to let me interview him on that.
Q: Tell me about how the Common Core State Standards Mathematics Work Team got formed and how you got onto it.
A: There were actually two separate documents and two separate processes, and people often get confused between them.
The first part happened in the summer of 2009 and produced a document called “College and Career Readiness Standards“. It didn’t go grade by grade but rather described what a high school student leaving and ready for college and career looks like. The team that wrote that pre-cursor document consisted of people from the College Board, ACT, and Achieve and was organized and managed by CCSSO (which represents state education commissioners and the like) and NGA (which represents Governors). Gene Wilhout, then executive director of CCSSO, led the charge.
I was on that first panel representing Achieve. Achieve does not write assessments, but College Board and ACT do, and I think that’s where the charge that the standards were developed by testing companies comes from. It’s worth noting in the context of that charge that both ACT and College Board are non-profits.
The second part of the process, called the Work Team, took that document and worked backwards to create the actual Common Core State Standards for mathematics. I was the chair of the Work Team and was one of the 3 lead writers, the other two being Jason Zimba and Phil Daro. But the other members of the Work Team represent many educators, mathematicians, and math education folks, as well as DOE folks, and importantly there are no testing or textbook companies represented. The full list is here.
Q: Explain what Achieve is and is not.
A: Achieve is not a testing company, so let’s put that to rest.
Without going into too much historical detail (some of which is available here), Achieve was launched as an initiative of a combination of business and education leaders with the goal to improve education. It’s a non-profit think tank, which came out with benchmarks for mathematics education and tried to get states to align standards to them.
I started working with Achieve around 2005 and pretty soon I found myself chairing a committee to revise the benchmarks, which is how I got involved in the drafting of the first document I talked about above.
One more word about getting states on board with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). There were 48 states that had committed to being involved in the writing, but not necessarily to adopt the standards. The states were involved in the review process as the CCSS were being written in 2009-2010. And here by “states” we usually mean teams from the various Department of Education, but different states had different team makeups.
For example, Arizona heavily involved teachers and some other states had their mathematics specialists at the DOE look things over and make comments.The American Federation of Teachers took the review quite seriously, and Jason and I met twice over the weekend to talk to teams of teachers assembled by AFT, listening to comments and making revisions.The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics was also quite involved in reviews and meetings.
Q: What are the goals of CCSS?
A: The goal is educational: to describe the mathematical achievements, skills, and understandings that we want students to have by the time they leave high school, broken down by grades.
It’s important to note at this point that this is not a new idea. Indeed states have had standards since the early 1990’s. But those standards were pretty unfocused and incoherent in many cases. What’s new is that we have common standards, and that they are focused and coherent.
Q: So what’s the difference between standards and tests?
A: Standards are descriptions of what you want students to learn. What you do with them is up to you. Testing is something you do if you want to know if they’ve learned what you wanted them to learn. It’s assessment.
Q: What’s your view on tests?
A: I would say that it doesn’t make sense to have no tests, no assessments. It doesn’t make sense to spend the money we spend on education ($12000 per student each year) and then not bother to see if it has had an effect. But nobody tests as much as the United States, and it seems quite overdone. This is a legacy of the No Child Left Behind bill, which had punitive measures for schools based on assessments embedded into law.
From my perspective, education in this country goes between extremes, and right now we are undeniably on the extreme with respect to testing. But I’d like to be clear that standards don’t cause testing.
Q: OK, but it’s undeniable that CC makes testing easier, do you agree?
A: Yes, and isn’t that a good thing? Having common standards also makes good testing easier. I’d also argue that they make it possible to spend less money on testing, and to make testing more centered on what you actually want. It puts more, not less, power into the hands of the consumers of the test. And that’s a good thing.
A word about testing companies. There’s no question that testing companies are trying to grab their share of money for tests. But before they could get paid for 50 different tests based on 50 different standards. What’s better?
There are two new assessment consortia, groups of states which are developing common assessments based on the standards. The consortia will have more power in the marketplace than individual states had.
I believe that people are conflating two separate issues which I’d like to separate. First, do we do a good job of choosing tests? Second, do the CCSS make that worse?
I believe that the CCSS have the power to make things better, although it’s possible that nobody will take advantage of the “commonness” in CCSS. And I’m not saying I’m not worried – the assessment consortia might do a good job but they might fail or get caught up in politics. The campaign for teacher accountability is causing fear and anger. I think you are right to be suspicious of VAM, for example. But that’s not caused by CCSS. Having common standards gives us power if we use it.
I’d also like to make the point that having common standards helps gives power to small players in curriculum publishing. When 50 different states had 50 different standards, the big publishing players with huge sales forces were able to send people to every state and adapt books to different standards. But now we will have smallish companies able to make something work and prove their worth in Tennessee and then sell it in California or wherever.
Q: What would you say to the people who might say that we don’t need more tests, we need to address poverty?
A: I’d say that having good standards can help.
Look, we need a good education system and to eliminate poverty. And having good common standards helps that second goal as well as the first. Why do I say that? A lot of what is good about the CCSS is that they are pretty focused, whereas many of the complaints about the old state standards were that they had tended to be “mile wide inch deep,” meaning having laundry lists of skills which were overall unfocused and incoherent.
We wanted to make something focused, which translated into having fewer things per grade level and doing them right, and making the overall standards a progression which tells a story that makes sense. Good standards, as I believe the CCSS represent, help everybody by providing clear guidance, which particularly helps struggling students and poor schools with less than ideal conditions.
Q: Do CC standards make teachers passive? Are they sufficiently flexible?
A: I don’t even get that.
Here’s the thing, standards are not curriculum.
Curriculum is what teachers actually follow in the classroom. We’ve always had standards, so what changed? Why are we suddenly worried about this new concept which isn’t new at all?
Here’s a legitimate fear: regimented, overly-prescriptive curricula that tell you what to do every day, like in France. Fair enough. But standards don’t say you need to have that. They just say what we want students to learn. It’s true that an overzealous implementation of standards could make teachers passive.
Maybe what’s new is that previously most people ignored their state standards and now people are actually paying attention. But that still doesn’t imply boring or rigid curricula.
Q: Are the CCSS “alive”?
A: How living do we want CC standards to be? Countries like Singapore revise standards on a 10-year cycle. After all we don’t want it to move too quickly, since we need to have time to implement stuff. In fact I’d argue that instability has been a big problem: there’s always a new fad, a new thing, and people never get a chance to figure out what we’re doing with what we’ve got. We should study what works and what doesn’t. And of course there should be revisions when that makes sense.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
A: Two things. First, I’d like to stress that people are conflating CCSS and testing, and they’re also conflating CCSS and curriculum. It’d be nice for people to separate their issues.
And one last thing. We as a country don’t understand common anything. We don’t see advantages of standards. Think about how useful it is to have standards, though. My recent project is a website called Illustrative Mathematics, which could not exist without standards. it’s a national community of teachers figuring out what they need to know – across state lines. That’s neat, and it’s only one of many benefits of having shared standards.