Study: Common Core could boost U.S. math performance


By examining the top-performing countries in the TIMSS study, Schmidt and his team were able to identify what defines world-class standards.

The Common Core State Standards in mathematics have the potential to enhance students’ academic performance if properly implemented, but most states have a long way to go, according to research from William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

At an event co-sponsored by Achieve, Chiefs for Change, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Schmidt presented a briefing on his work, titled “Common Core State Standards Math: The Relationship Between High Standards, Systemic Implementation, and Student Achievement.”

Schmidt’s research took existing data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to determine how the Common Core State Standards in math compared to math standards in countries whose eighth graders performed the best on math assessments.

“I think the time has come to really look more seriously at some of the issues surrounding these standards, especially as several states are [questioning their implementation],” Schmidt said.

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Schmidt was involved in the TIMSS, which laid the groundwork that prompted groups to move toward developing the common standards.

“These standards are world-class,” he said, noting that the definition of “world-class” has been somewhat fuzzy. But by examining the top-performing countries in the TIMSS study, Schmidt and his team were able to identify exactly what defines world-class standards.

Using TIMSS as the basis and concentrating on eighth grade performance, Schmidt’s team coded results and concluded that the top-achieving countries—those whose eighth graders performed the best—shared three distinguishing characteristics.

  • Focus: Lessons are concentrated on a smaller number of topics.
  • Coherence: Math is logically constructed, and instructors cannot “skip” ahead.
  • Rigor: Moving from early grades up to middle grades reveals that middle grades concentrate less on arithmetic and more on algebra and geometry skills.

After coding information from the TIMSS to identify which topics were taught at which grade level, the team next examined and coded Common Core math standards, and they compared what topics are taught at what grade levels to those in the TIMSS study. Researchers found a 90-percent overlap.

“A 90-percent consistency, I think, leads to the conclusion that we have standards that are very coherent, focused, and rigorous, and in fact it is time to simply stop talking about them and stop debating it, and simply move to the real, serious implementation thereof. These are world-class standards,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the Common Core math standards have the potential, if properly implemented, to help boost student performance because they are very consistent with international standards found in countries whose students were among top performers.

For more news about math instruction, see:

Clark County schools see improvement with help from math software

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Wolfram Alpha launches free portal with tools for math instruction

“It’s impossible at this point to show [definitive results] with the Common Core, because they are nowhere fully implemented,” he said. The team decided to simulate what a relationship between the common math standards and student achievement might look like given currently available data.

Using data from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and a 2007 study on international teacher preparation, along with the same coding methods, researchers coded math standards in all U.S. states.

The results revealed that states with past math standards that were more similar to today’s Common Core math standards demonstrated a significantly higher performance on the 2009 NAEP. Schmidt cautioned that this is not a causal inference, nor does it suggest that this is exactly what will happen once the Common Core math standards take hold, but the results do give a sense of how states may perform and improve student math achievement once they are following the common math standards.

While many think of the Common Core as an attempt to improve students’ academic performance, Schmidt noted that the “common” aspect is important as well, because the standards are intended for all students. The U.S. education system has vast inequities, he said, and “there isn’t anything that you can expect that all children will necessarily experience in the right order in the right grades.” This has led to a serious problem that “further exacerbates problems across social class groups in terms of what we expect them to learn.”

“We’re at a pivotal moment in education reform in this country, and the Common Core Standards are playing a critical role in that,” said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve. Achieve worked closely with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association in developing the Common Core standards and is working with roughly half of the states—46 in all, plus Washington, D.C.—that have adopted the standards.

As the Common Core standards gain momentum, Cohen noted that criticism has developed questioning if the standards are as rigorous as they need to be, if they are internationally benchmarked, and if they will really matter in the long run—questions that Schmidt’s recent research aims to address.

“The Common Core is an improvement, in many ways, over where a lot of current state standards are, especially in the math area,” said John Bailey of the Foundation for Excellence and Chiefs for Change. “The challenge in moving forward is implementing the Common Core State Standards in an intentional and thoughtful way.”

Stakeholders need to trust the Common Core to empower teachers to select the tools and resources that their students most need, he added.

For more news about math instruction, see:

Clark County schools see improvement with help from math software

Online program will help guide Okla. students through Algebra I

Wolfram Alpha launches free portal with tools for math instruction

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