Ze’ev Wurman official testimony in SB193

Why Indiana’s Own Standards are Better for Indiana Students

Ze’ev Wurman, Palo Alto, Calif.

Professional background: I am former Senior Adviser at the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy

Development in the U.S. Department of Education. Throughout the development of the Common Core

standards in 2009-2010 I analyzed the mathematics drafts for the Pioneer Institute and for the State of

California. In the summer of 2010 I served on the California Academic Content Standards Commission

that reviewed the adoption of Common Core for California. Prior to that, in the late 1990s, I participated

in the development of California mathematics content standards and framework. I served on the

mathematics content review panel for the California state test since its inception in 1999 and until

recently. I have published professional and opinion articles about education and about the Common

Core, among others, in Education Next, Education Week, Sacramento Bee, Boston Globe, San Francisco

Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, and City Journal.

In my testimony today I will focus on the following points.

 The superior quality of Indiana standards in mathematics as compared to the Common Core.

 The low level of Common Core’s definition of college-readiness.

 The argued benefits of common national standards are weak and questionable, while the loss of

state autonomy, of public review, and of educational innovation are real and immediate.

1. Quality of the Common Core Mathematics Standards

No doubt the state legislature has by now been told about the superiority of Indiana’s own standards

over Common Core’s, as found by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – a supporter of the Common Core –

many times. What I want to illustrate to you today is the actual meaning of this superiority.

The Common Core proudly announces that it is tightly focused on only a few topics in each elementary

grade because, it claims, that is what other successful countries are doing. Yet if one were to look at

Singapore or Korea, prominent members of that successful club, one would see that they are not nearly

as narrow or as limiting as the Common Core. It seems that in its haste to be “lean and mean,” the

Common Core ignored many skills that those countries – and Indiana’s own standards – expect of

students. For example, the Common Core starts introducing the concept of money only in the second

grade, while Singapore and Indiana suggest starting in the first grade. Common Core forgets to teach

prime factorization all together, so it cannot ever teach least common denominators or greatest

common factors. It does not teach about area of a triangle until grade 6 and sum of angles in a triangle

until grade 8, topics which ought to be taught in grades 5 and 6, respectively. Worse yet, even when it

comes to fractions, the topic it is most proud of, Common Core completely forgot to teach conversion

among fractional forms – fractions, percent, and decimals – that has been identified as a key skill by the

National Research Council, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Advisory

Math Panel.

There is more. Even in its core focus, basic arithmetic, the Common Core opens the way for the

pernicious “fuzzy math” to creep back into the curriculum. On the one hand, it expects – even if later

than our international competitors – that eventually the standard algorithms for the four basic

operations be mastered. On the other hand, many prior years are full with intermediate standards that

repeatedly demand students to explain their actions in terms of crude strategies based on various

concrete and visual models or invented algorithms applicable only to specific cases. The consequence of

this skewed attention is that students will end up confused by the variety of pseudo-algorithms they are

forced to study. Stanford professor James Milgram captured it well in his testimony before the California

Academic Standards Commission, saying that “Within the document itself, there seems to be a minor

war going on and this is not something we should hand over to our teachers.”1 Small wonder that a

classic fuzzy math text like TERC Investigations can claim that “there is strong alignment between

Investigations and the [Common Core] Math Content Standards,”2 or that New York’s Common Core

curriculum can promote fuzzy foolishness such as “Working in small groups, the students rotated

through the classrooms in the second-grade wing to work at the various stations. Using edible

gingerbread men, the second-graders utilized their math skills by tasting the cookies and graphing which

portions of the cookies that they took their first bites of.”

In the middle school, the Common Core does not expect students to take Algebra 1 in grade 8, despite

the fact that a large fraction of students in Indiana and across the nation already take it. All the high

achieving countries, like Singapore, Korea or Japan, expect essentially all their students to take Algebra I

in grade 8, or complete Algebra I and Geometry by grade 9. Common Core abandoned this goal that

promoted much of our nation’s mathematics improvement over last decade, and offers it only as an

afterthought, unsupported by instructional materials or assessment. Yet taking Algebra I in grade 8 is of

critical importance if one wants to reach calculus by grade 12 and to enroll in competitive colleges.

Incidentally, states like Massachusetts and California recognized some of these deficiencies and chose to

supplement the Common Core with at least some of the missing content. In contrast, Indiana adopted

the Common Core as is and without any additions.

2. Common Core high school mathematics and its low level of college-readiness definition

Prof. Fabio Milner, formerly of Purdue University, testified last January as to the lower level of the

Common Core Algebra 1 course as compared to Indiana’s own. Consequently, I will not repeat his

statement here but will rather attach it to my own.

Common Core replaces the traditional foundations of Euclidean geometry with an experimental

approach. This approach has never been successfully used in any sizable system; in fact, it failed even in

the school for gifted and talented students in Moscow, where it was originally invented. Yet Common

Core effectively imposes this experimental approach on the entire country, without any piloting.

Essentially all four-year state colleges across the country, including Indiana’s own universities, require at

least the Algebra I/Algebra II and Geometry courses as prerequisites for enrollment. This is a rather

minimal expectation for college-readiness, as the growing number of students in remedial courses

attests. To get a better sense of how marginal this requirement is, one may look to California’s

assessments for college readiness within the California State University system that it conducts in grade

11. Results indicate that among students who just take Algebra 2, only 7% are ready and 22% are

conditionally ready (i.e., they need to take another year of math in grade 12). In contrast, among

students that take a math course beyond Algebra 2, 22% are ready and 67% are conditionally ready – a

huge difference.

Yet the Common Core chose to lower the standards even more and eliminate content like geometric and

arithmetic sequences, or combinations and permutations, from its own version of Algebra 2 that it

offers as a measure of college readiness.

In summary, Common Core’s high school mathematics are partially experimental and of significantly

lower quality than Indiana’s own programs. Its promise of college readiness for all rings hollow and will

cause even larger rates of remediation in college.

But you don’t have to believe me: Jason Zimba, one of the main authors of the mathematics standards,

testified in front of the Massachusetts Board of Education4 that Common Core’s ”concept of college

readiness is minimal and focuses on non-selective colleges.” It is hard to see how such a low level of

college readiness will benefit Indiana’s students.

3. The purported benefits of common national standards

Promoters of the Common Core tout the many advantages these standards are supposed to bring. Key

among them are (a) comparability across states, (b) ease for students moving across state lines, (c)

economies of scale in development of instructional materials, and (d) economies of scale in developing

novel assessment. Further, they also argue that all high achieving countries have national standards.

The last argument is, perhaps, the easiest to dismiss. Most countries in the world have centralized

education systems and hence national standards. Yet this is true of both the best performing countries

as well as of the worst performing countries, and in itself means nothing. Most countries are not as large

or as populous as the Unites States, and do not have a strong federal system. But those who do have a

federal system with a decentralized education system, like Canada or Australia, do very well on

international assessment.

Comparability among states can be easily achieved by using a common reference like NAEP to compare

states. Another way to compare would be to use a computer-adaptive MAP test from NWEA that is

widely used across the country in both public and private schools. The Fordham Institute frequently

argues these days for the need of common standards for comparability, yet in 2007 it was the Fordham

Institute that successfully compared between standards of multiple states using precisely such

4 Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, March 23, 2010, p.5.


methodology.5 An advantage of using the NWEA test is that it can be easily aligned with each state’s

standards, and it will provide comparison with private schools to boot.

Cross-state student mobility is another myth used to justify the need for common standards. Yet U.S.

Census Bureau data shows that less than three tenths of one percent of students move across state lines

every year.6 It seems difficult to justify giving up on the state’s ability to chart its own destiny for the

sake of so few students.


This brings me to the promised economies of scale in procuring textbooks, professional development,

and developing assessment. Rather than representing cost savings, they represent Indian’s inability to

chart its own path to educate its students. Indiana has over one million students, and it is hard to

believe that it cannot get good prices on textbooks already. But the federally funded shared assessment

already promises to be at least as expensive as your existing one, and probably much more. After all, the

big money in assessment is not in its development but in its administration. Sharing the test among

multiple states barely helps in the cost of administration, but it ties the state’s hands to remote

Washington bureaucrats and takes away the state’s ability to care for its own children the way it wants.

Thank you for your time.


5 The Proficiency Illusion, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Washington, DC. October 2007.

6 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, table C07001, 2011.

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