New Math Standards Get Blowback from Business Community

Barbara Cargill, State Board of Education meeting on July 21, 2011.
Barbara Cargill, State Board of Education meeting on July 21, 2011.

In January, when members of the State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to revised standards for the state’s K-12 math curriculum, Education Commissioner Robert Scott told them, “My goal is for Texas to have the best math standards.”

But Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, believes the proposed standards — up for final consideration at this week’s SBOE meeting — are far from the best. He is trying to rally support to prevent them from being approved.

In an April 9 memo sent to the 15 members of the SBOE as well as legislative leaders, Hammond raised concerns that the standards were not particularly rigorous and were, in some places, poorly written to the point of being incoherent. Because approval could lock these standards in for the next 10 years, Hammond urged opposition to the proposed revisions, saying they are “far from in line with Texas’ goal of raising educational standards.”

As one of five states that have not adopted national common core curriculum standards, opting instead to write its own curriculum for K-12 education, Texas has something to prove as it considers its math standards this week.

As Barbara Cargill, a Republican from The Woodlands and chairwoman of the SBOE, explained in a February newsletter to her supporters, state leaders believe they are capable of creating superior standards. “The [common core standards] are less rigorous and they lower expectations for academic progress at each grade level,” she wrote. “We do not need the federal government telling us what and when to teach our children.”

 

But in his memo last week, Hammond contended that the proposed standards “are actually worse and less rigorous than the common core standards.”

The debate over math standards, which will pick up on Wednesday when the next round of public testimony is scheduled, is not likely to spark the national outcry that distinguished the SBOE’s debate over the social studies curriculum in 2010. But Hammond said it has serious implications for the state’s workforce.

“Our concern is with seeing that K-12 has a rigorous curriculum that is comprehensible by those we charge with teaching our children, which all leads to kids graduating career and college ready,” Hammond said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “That’s our goal.”

Cargill told the Tribune that the members of the SBOE, knowing their decision could affect students for the next decade, take the consideration of the math standards seriously. "It is a big decision," she said, "and we do not take it lightly."

In an email, Scott said the Texas Education Agency was already aware of and has been addressing the issues Hammond raised. “We received comments from a number of sources and take them all into account as this is a public process," he wrote. "We are committed to adopting the best math standards in the country."

Hammond’s concerns are largely informed by an analysis of the proposed standards by Ze’ev Wurman, a former adviser in President George W. Bush’s Department of Education and a vocal critic of the common core standards. After hearing rumblings about the proposed revisions, Hammond sent them to Wurman — who found them “problematic.”

“It picks many nice ideas from the common core,” Wurman wrote, “yet it also introduces errors and clumsiness in the way it attempts to adjust standards for Texas. … The draft creates a wordy, sometimes incoherent and often garbled document, particularly in K-8, that shows the disparate fingerprints of the various groups and committees that influenced it through its development.”

Wurman contends that the proposed Texas standards do not measure up to the common core standards — or even those independent standards of other states. He wrote that he’d be “hard pressed” to declare them an improvement over Texas’ current standards.

 

According to a Texas Education Agency news release, the math standards that have received preliminary approval are based on the state’s current ones — plus those of Massachusetts, Minnesota “and international standards from places such as Singapore, which are believed to have some of the world’s best math curriculum standards.”

Review committees, made up of individuals — most of them educators — nominated by SBOE members, have been working on the math standards since May 2011. As a starting point, they used a draft compiled by the commissioner and a group of advisers from Texas, which was reviewed by a team from around the country. A separate group of expert reviewers, nominated by the SBOE, provides feedback throughout the process.

Hammond said he worried that the complicated committee process resulted in standards with breadth but little depth. He wants the SBOE to put off approval and allow time to reconsider the standards and how they are derived.

Bob Craig, a Republican member of the SBOE, defended the work put into the proposed standards by the review committees and others who have worked on the project.

“I very much trust our teachers in the state of Texas, and I appreciate the math group’s willingness to help us fine-tune what we’re doing and make it the best in the country,” he said.

Craig said he had not yet read Hammond’s memo, but said the board can still make changes and amendments as late as this week’s meeting. But he indicated that the board is looking forward to wrapping up the project sooner rather than later.

“I know that different people have raised various issues and concerns about some of the content in the math standards,” he said. “But I think that by looking at them and working together, I am hopeful that we can get them completed this week.”

Cargill agreed and said it was important to get the standards to publishers in a timely fashion so that they could begin producing materials for Texas classrooms. She said that the committee had received input and criticisms from multiple groups, including Hammond's, and was seriously considering all of them.

"We feel like, in Texas, we can write the best standards for our students," she said.

The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.

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