Adding calculus to Florida’s Common Core probably just an exercise in political expediency

Next month, the Florida Board of Education will vote on several modifications to the Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010.  One of the proposed modifications is to add calculus to the standards, an action that at first blush might be a bit puzzling.  After all, the Common Core math standards are supposed to be a math-for-all-students document, and calculus is definitely not a math-for-all-students subject.

At one level at least, the addition of the calculus standards is a political maneuver.  Opposition to the Common Core seems built on three objections.  One is that standards are too difficult and will discourage many children.  A second is that the Common Core represents unwarranted intrusion by the federal government into K-12 education, which is traditionally a local and state function.  (Some proponents of this argument carry it farther, saying that the Common Core is an attempt by the federal Big Brother to brainwash children)

The third, advanced in particular by Common Core Validation Committee members Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, is that the implementation of the Common Core will reduce or eliminate opportunities for students to excel in mathematics at the level required to prepare for careers in science, math and engineering.  Stotsky explained this concern in an op-ed in the January 3 issue of the Wall Street Journal:

Yet the basic mission of Common Core, as Jason Zimba, its leading mathematics standards writer, explained at a videotaped board meeting in March 2010, is to provide students with enough mathematics to make them ready for a nonselective college—”not for STEM,” as he put it. During that meeting, he didn’t tell us why Common Core aimed so low in mathematics. But in a September 2013 article published in the Hechinger Report, an education news website affiliated with Columbia University’s Teachers College, Mr. Zimba admitted: “If you want to take calculus your freshman year in college, you will need to take more mathematics than is in the Common Core.”

As Stanford mathematics professor James Milgram noted in “Lowering the Bar,” a report the two of us co-wrote for the Pioneer Institute in September, the Common Core deliberately leaves out “major topics in trigonometry and precalculus.” Contrast that with the status quo before the Common Core, when states like Massachusetts and California provided precalculus standards for high-school students. The implications of this are dramatic. “It is extremely rare for students who begin their undergraduate years with coursework in precalculus or an even lower level of mathematical knowledge to achieve a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area,” Mr. Milgram added.

On a political level, the addition of calculus to Florida’s version of the Common Core is intended to undermine this objection, even though it will have no practical effect on what is taught in the high schools.  The Florida Department of Education admitted through StateImpact Florida that calculus would not be added to graduation requirements.

The Florida Department of Education has added irrelevant standards before.  When the state’s science standards were adopted in February 2008, standards on physical and Earth/space science were included for grades 9-12.  However, those standards are not assessed at all on a statewide basis, and no science other than life science is required for high school graduation.  If added, the new calculus standards would be equivalently irrelevant.

However, it is possible that Florida’s education leadership intends to expand and improve its math instruction for the state’s best and brightest students, and that the addition of calculus standards is a signal that this is going to happen.  If this is the case, then Commissioner Stewart will open a dialogue with engineering, math and science faculty at the state’s universities to discuss how to better prepare students for college majors in those fields. (Not administrators, and not math and science education faculty.  Puh-leeze.)  She will also initiate a program of incentives to attract the strong math teachers the state will need to effectively teach calculus to more students.

Short of that, the addition of the calculus standards is, as Professor Stotsky told me in a recent e-mail, a “cheap trick.”

But education at the state level is a political activity, and cheap tricks are part of the standard political repertoire.  What I found more disturbing was this quote from the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee in StateImpact Florida:  “The addition of calculus makes a ton of sense. And that’s a great way to customize and really strengthen the math standards that are already there in the Common Core.”  This statement from a presumed expert in math education is a complete surrender to political expediency.  What a shame that she couldn’t do better than that.

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One Response to Adding calculus to Florida’s Common Core probably just an exercise in political expediency

  1. Pingback: Education Week’s Liana Heitin: Common Core impeding progress in science | Bridge to Tomorrow

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