Home > math education > Interview with Bill McCallum, lead writer of Math Common Core

Interview with Bill McCallum, lead writer of Math Common Core

February 11, 2014

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 Wilhoutthen 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.

Categories: math education
  1. February 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    CCSS comes bundled with testing and curriculum requirements – it’s not possible to separate the standards from the punitive high-stakes testing and enforced curriculum requirements. It’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. The CCSS we actually have is not one of innocuous teacher-led standard development.
    Look at New York’s experience:
    ” my daughter’s teacher invited the students to draw themselves pictures of “test monsters” they could rip up when they were feeling anxious. She sent home a flyer asking parents to write their children “a short message of support and encouragement” that they can read before cracking the test booklets.”
    “Although the Common Core claims not to tell teachers what or how to teach, school districts must prove to state legislatures or the federal government (via the Race to the Top program) that they are complying with the Common Core. The simplest and most cost-effective way for a school district to do that is to purchase an approved reading or math program.
    As a result of the Common Core, teachers in our school district must now open boxes filled with reading materials, workbooks, and tests from a “learning company.” ”

    A different creation myth for CCSS is here,


    • February 11, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Very true comments. CCSS is just the tip of the iceberg. The public has yet to realize that CCSS is part of a package deal of standards, testing, “big” data collection, and teacher evaluation (i.e., union busting). For another view look here.

      Cathy, I know you’re trying to bring a fair view on this matter. But having researched this subject for over six months, I can say that that CCSS has relied on a lot of spin and outright lies. The better views have been coming from third parties, such as those that Doug K. points to. Just look at the disaster unfolding in NY.

      I hope you’ll contact Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, who were involved with developing the standards, for their views. Let me know if you need some help.


    • February 12, 2014 at 8:06 am

      So, facts can be checked.

      Let’s take the first factual assertion in the blog piece by Anthony Cody that you reference: “there were zero teachers actually writing the draft standards.” Cathy’s interview with me has a link to the members of the mathematics work team. Follow it and check if the “zero teachers” assertion is accurate.

      Or let’s take the second: “In fact, the operation of the Work Groups writing the standards was described as “confidential throughout the process” – which means secret. Not transparent at all.”

      Now follow the link in the words “was described”, which takes us to an NGA news release issued in July 2009—one year before the standards were released, and before the process even started! So the “was described” is disingenuous; this is not a retrospective description of the process, but a description of a proposed process (which, by the way, if you read the whole memo, you will see includes review by states and national organizations, the “confidential” notwithstanding). There are a number of ways in which the actual process deviated from that memo, particularly the composition of the work group, which dropped representatives of College Board and ACT and added many others, including teachers, and the fact that the standards were released for public comment March 2010 before being released in final form in June 2010. The actual process is easily traced by reading other, later news releases from NGA, available on their website.

      I won’t bother to go onto the third factual assertion in that piece, leaving it as an exercise for those interested in the truth.


  2. February 11, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    I like much of what Bill says here, but also agree with Doug about the disingenuity of grumbling over conflation of CC and testing, or CC and curriculum — these things ARE inexorably intertwined; and when you add in the widespread practice of assessing teachers based on how well their students do on such testing, it gets even muddier. Coming up with some form of Common Core is almost the easy part… how you teach and assess it are the quicksand-like conundrums.


  3. Etienne
    February 11, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    “Here’s a legitimate fear: regimented, overly-prescriptive curricula that tell you what to do every day, like in France. Fair enough. ”

    Ughh ? This looks neither like the french math classroom I have experienced nor like the one my children are currently following. And using french pedagogy in mathematics as a boogeyman is not really a perfect tactic anyway.

    In any case, the one thing that France has had for two centuries, is national standards, with a synchronized nation-wide examination at age 15 (called Brevet) and age 18 (called Baccalauréat) before University.


    • February 12, 2014 at 7:32 am

      Yeah, I should probably have asked Cathy to edit that. What I had in mind was something like “if the U.S. tried to adopt a system like the one in France it would result in regimented, over-prescriptive curricula” (which I think is true) but it didn’t come out that way, did it? What works in one country does not necessarily work in another. My three daughters were in French schools for two years and got a lot out of it (and one of them took the Brevet).


  4. February 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    This is the best and most dispassionate analysis I’ve read of the CCSS… THANK YOU! Here’s my take on why CCSS is opposed by teachers:
    1. If we didn’t have CCSS we couldn’t have two consortia developing de facto national standardized tests that innumerate politicians believe can be used to measure teacher performance.
    2. If we didn’t have de facto national standardized tests that innumerate politicians believe can be used to measure teacher performance we wouldn’t have teachers narrowing the math curriculum to questions that will be tested, thereby creating a de facto national boilerplate curriculum like the one in France.
    3. If we didn’t have de facto national standardized tests that innumerate politicians believe can be used to measure teacher performance we wouldn’t have school boards eliminating programs that CAN’T be readily assessed… like the arts, like creative writing, like any subject that requires divergent thinking.
    As one who questions the longstanding practice of grouping students in age-based cohorts for instruction and assessment, I question the CCSS’s back-mapping of graduation standards to “grade levels” based on a students age and then basing individual and group performance on the attainment of this interpolated “grade level” performance. Students should be allowed to progress through standards at their own rate the same way students progress through shoe sizes at their own rate. As a result of this arrangement we’ve created an artificial timeline for progression through the standards that leads some to the conclusion that the standards themselves are unattainable.


    • February 12, 2014 at 8:21 am

      Teachers are not a monolithic bloc; they neither oppose nor support CCSS en masse. That said, I agree that the reasons you give are reasons motivating those who oppose the standards. But the fact is that we had all those things before: standardized tests measuring teacher performance, resulting in teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum. We had state standards before. We would still have all these things if there had been no CCSS. We structured the standards to be resistant to the checklist mentality that leads to these excesses (see http://commoncoretools.me/2012/02/16/the-structure-is-the-standards/).


  5. February 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    This is a cogent analysis of the CCSS. My comment appears at the bottom.


  6. JSE
    February 11, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Regarding Bill’s point about uniform standards and poverty:

    We had a task force here about middle school math education in Madison. The tradition here is to have a great deal of school autonomy, with each school deciding its own math curriculum. Which sounds great! Why should a bureaucrat in city hall decide what gets taught in the classroom?

    But the other side, as we discussed in the task force, was that when each school has its own math curriculum, it really sucks to switch schools. Who switches schools? It’s disproportionately poorer kids, whose parents are renters, who have less stable employment, etc.

    This is a scenario where having a citywide curriculum, or at least a citywide set of grade-level benchmarks so that the courses are more or less in the same order, creates an equity gain. It’s not a way of fighting poverty, just a mechanism of softening one of the 1000 ways that poverty disadvantages kids in school.


    • February 11, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      This argument frequently comes up. It sounds nice, but is it really that compelling? I’m a bit skeptical that with all the challenges brought about by moving and switching schools/districts–changes in physical environment, culture, peer groups, social status–encountering similarly aligned educational standards is going make a significant impact.

      And as Bill McCallum points out, statewide standards have been around for a while. Can we point to any equity gains as a result?


      • JSE
        February 11, 2014 at 6:06 pm

        I can only say that I find it compelling. I think showing up in 8th grade math and finding that you’re expected to know techniques that everybody but you has been doing for six months would really suck.

        But I have nothing empirical to say about it. As to “Can we point to any equity gains as a result?” that is a good question, and I don’t know the answer, nor am I sure how I’d measure it.


        • February 12, 2014 at 8:09 am

          Yes, moving to a new school and discovering you’re out-of-phase with your new classmates would be very frustrating. But to me, a more practical solution is to make sure schools have the proper resources (support staff, tutors, guidance counselors) to handle these kinds of problems at the student-level. Again, I’m skeptical that high-level policy decisions really have an impact in siutations like this.

          And don’t let not knowing how to measure something in education stop you from measuring it. It certainly hasn’t stopped anyone else!


  7. February 11, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Advancing New Hampshire Public Education and commented:
    Here’s a great logical conversation about the Common Core standards, particularly math, by one of the math authors. It won’t convince opponents…nothing will. But if you’re not married to your opinion and just want to read an engaging discussion of the views that underlie the Common Core, this is a good one.


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