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mathrocksBy now most states have implemented Common Core or CC-like standards and are actively teaching them in their k-12 classrooms. Numerous stories have shown that the standards have failed to live up to their initial hype. They haven’t vaulted all American students to new academic heights. They have, rather, proved to be, as Commissioner Nicastro testified in 2012, merely “the floor” of academic expectations.


Far from remaining asleep and accepting the mediocre gift of the education elite, thousands of parents across the country have been fighting for something better than the floor for their children. When they couldn’t move the immovable public education system, they headed for the life boats, and in traditional American fashion, are creating a class of students who are not only competitive in the international arena, they are beating other countries.

A story in this month’s Atlantic Magazine features American teens who competed in 56th International Mathematical Olympiad and came in first, beating out countries like Russia, China and South Korea who are traditionally thought of as tops in math. Of course these students didn’t reach such peak mathematical performance following their school’s Common Core math curriculum. The NCTM mathematical principles were merely a nice starting point for them. Instead their parents turned to programs outside the school system to challenge and develop their children’s math abilities.

The free market is beginning to explode with such opportunities. Summer programs like  MathILy, AwesomeMath, Math Zoom and Idea Math, are working with kids who show some aptitude for math but who are not necessarily at the top of their math class.  Here in Missouri we have Epsilon Camp run out of Washington University which tells parents,

“Cringing in silent boredom in an unfulfilling classroom setting can derail budding mathematical talent and quell promising interest in a field that, when properly approached, offers a lifetime of possibilities and satisfaction…The acute minds of the few mathematically profoundly gifted students in the nation deserve intervention and tailored instruction. Epsilon Camp serves this need in the summer for students who are at least 7 years old but not yet 12 years while at camp.”

For the older students who are ready for the dormitory experience, Wash U also offers the more extensive MathPath program.

The Atlantic said the result of these kinds of programs is an increase in math contest participation by Americans and an overall increase in extracurricular opportunities for students who seem to like math.

“The number of U.S. participants in Math Kangaroo, an international contest for first- through 12th-graders that came to American shores in 1998, grew from 2,576 in 2009 to 21,059 in 2015. More than 10,000 middle- and high-school students haunt chat rooms, buy textbooks, and take classes on the advanced-math learners’ Web site the Art of Problem Solving. This fall, the Art of Problem Solving’s founder, Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympian who left his job in finance 18 years ago, will open two brick-and-mortar centers in the Raleigh, North Carolina, and Rockville, Maryland, areas, with a focus on advanced math. An online program for elementary-school students will follow. Last fall, Zeitz—along with another math professor, a teacher, and a private-equity manager—opened the Proof School, a small independent secondary school in San Francisco similarly centered on amped-up math. Before the inaugural school year even began, school officials were fielding inquiries from parents wondering when a Proof School would be opening on the East Coast and whether they could get their child on a waiting list. “The appetite among families for this kind of math instruction,” Rusczyk says, “seems boundless.”

All this math enthusiasm flies in the face of the rationale behind Common Core math with its heavy focus on “deeper understanding” and real world applications. CC math took what was called a mile wide and inch deep math curriculum and narrowed it down to fewer topics so that there could be a deeper understanding of those topics. The teens at Math Kangaroo show an excitement for math that may not have immediate real world application. So why did CC choose to focus on the latter? Most likely the writers were devotees of  William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia University Teachers College, the man most often cited as being responsible for killing math education is this country. Read more about his history here.

Kilpatrick was a protege of John Dewey who combined social psychology and education in the 1930’s. He was the pioneer of the progressive-education movement and coined the phrase “child-led learning.”  This idea said that the least educated person in the room, the student, was in the best position to decide what he or she needed to learn. Perhaps seeing that not all students had a natural aptitude for math, Kilpatrick wanted to change math education to limit it to what was needed for everyday living. Kilpatrick believed that anything beyond arithmetic was useless to most of the population. He even worried that the instruction of complex math was harmful to everyday living. He told crowds “we have in the past taught algebra and geometry to too many, not too few.” What Kilpatrick left out of his plan was all the students who now happily compete in the math competitions and spend time and money studying math outside of the traditional K-12 curriculum.

Instead of moving towards more equity, as the progressive reformers want, we are moving towards more of a divide as those with the means send their children for additional enrichment opportunities not available to those in lower economic circles. Everyone else gets the floor in standard expectations, which is not necessarily bad, but certainly not something we should be paying top dollar for and not something we should be calling “high quality” “college ready” education that will make us “internationally competitive.” The evolving scenario still has America coming out the winner, but provides fodder for those who want more money dumped into their school system so that all children might have “equal” access to such programs. Maybe, as Congress did with NCLB’s irrational goal of 100% grade level proficiency, we should re-evaluate the goal of equity.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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