Common Core opponent misses the point in Wall Street Journal op-ed

In her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Common Core opponent and former Massachusetts Senior Associate Commissioner of Education Sandra Stotsky argues that the Core is bad policy because it will not properly prepare students for college majors in science, engineering and mathematics.  But the Common Core was never intended to improve – or even affect – the education of the upper quartile students who could pursue those careers.  Stotsky’s argument is a classic red herring, intended to distract attention from the serious issues addressed by the Core.

The issue that the Common Core is intended to address is this:  According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits.” This is not much of a problem at Stanford, where Professor Stotsky’s co-complainer Professor James Milgram is an emeritus member of the math faculty.  But it is an enormous problem for the community colleges and regional four-year public institutions where these unprepared students cluster.  And it’s a huge problem for the unprepared students themselves because most students who remediate in college never finish a degree.

Students who arrive at a community college with a solid understanding of Algebra 2 are ready for credit-bearing college courses in mathematics.  Hence, the Common Core focuses on getting students to that level.  Professor Stotsky notes that prior to Common Core, her home state of Massachusetts had standards from trigonometry and precalculus courses on the books, and I’m sure that’s true.  But many of that state’s high schools do not require any math courses higher than Algebra 1, so whatever trig and precalc standards might have been on the books in pre-Common Core days were ignored.

As a physics professor at a non-elite public university, I am deeply immersed in the issue that Professor Stotsky claims to address in her Wall Street Journal piece – the education of the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  Stotsky is not quite correct in saying that a high school precalculus course is what’s necessary to prepare a student well for a college major in these fields.  She is actually setting the bar too low.  Instead, being well-prepared requires another step up – a first-semester calculus class equivalent to the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course.  Only 4.1% of high school graduates in my state, Florida, have credit for AP Calculus AB.  I find that quite frustrating because about one-third of the state’s students take Algebra 1 in middle school, positioning them to take AP Calculus AB in the senior year of high school or earlier.  High school students are bailing out of the standard mathematics sequence for reasons we do not yet understand, and in the process these 15- and 16-year olds are eliminating themselves from the possibility of pursuing the most lucrative careers presently available.

As Stotsky says, the Common Core will not address that problem.  But saying that Common Core should not be implemented because of that is like saying that you shouldn’t purchase an automobile because it can’t fly.  The Common Core sets a floor – not a ceiling – so that every student will have the tools to achieve a middle class lifestyle.  The students that the Common Core addresses are the future bedrock of our society, and if they do not succeed our future as a nation will be bleak.

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