Common Core and STEM Not a Good Fit Op-Ed by Dr. Sandra Stotsky

Should American High Schools Prepare any Students for STEM?  

Common Core Doesn’t Think So


Sandra Stotsky

When states adopted Common Core’s mathematics standards, they were told (among other things) that these standards would make all high school students “college- and career-ready” and strengthen the critical pipeline for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

However, with the exception of a few standards in trigonometry, the math standards end after Algebra II, as James Milgram, professor of mathematics emeritus at StanfordUniversity observed in “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM,” a September 2013 report that we co-authored for the Pioneer Institute.

Who was responsible for telling Wisconsin’s Commissioner of Education when he decided to adopt these standards in 2010 that Common Core includes no standards for precalculus OR for getting to precalculus?  Who should be telling Governor Walker and Wisconsin business executives today that high school graduates taught only to Common Core’s mathematics standards won’t be able to pursue a four-year degree in STEM?  Why isn’t the Wisconsin  Department of Public Instruction telling local superintendents to make sure that an accelerated mathematics sequence is available from grade 6 on so that mathematically able kids in Wisconsin’s public schools can be prepared to enroll in and complete a full Algebra I course in grade 8 and have a chance to consider a STEM career when they plan their mathematics and science coursework in high school?

Superintendents, local school committees, and most parents don’t know that under Common Core their students won’t be able to pursue a STEM career.  In fact, they think that Common Core’s mathematics standards are rigorous.  They are not complicit in this clever act of educational sabotage, but those who wrote these standards are.  And their friends in Departments of Education or Public Instruction are.

U.S. government data show that only one out of every 50 prospective STEM majors who begin their undergraduate math coursework at the precalculus level or lower will earn bachelor’s degrees in a STEM area. Moreover, students whose last high school mathematics course was Algebra II or lower have less than a 40 percent chance of earning any kind of four-year college degree.

It’s not as if Common Core’s lead mathematics standards writers themselves didn’t tell the public how low Common Core’s high school mathematics standards were. At a March 2010 meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jason Zimba, a lead writer, told the board that the standards are “not only not for STEM, they are also not for selective colleges.”   In January 2010, William McCallum, another lead mathematics standards writer, told a group of mathematicians: “The overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.”

There are other consequences to having a college readiness test in mathematics with low expectations. The U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grant program, Race to the Top, requires states to place students who have been admitted by their public colleges and universities into credit-bearing (non-remedial) mathematics (and English) courses if they have passed a Common Core–based “college readiness” test. Selective public colleges, engineering schools, and universities in Wisconsin will likely have to lower the level of their introductory math courses to avoid unacceptably high failure rates.

Both Professor Milgram and I were members of Common Core’s Validation Committee, which was charged with reviewing each successive draft of the standards. We both refused to sign off on the academic quality of the national standards, but we made public our explanation and criticism of the final version of Common Core’s standards.

It is still astonishing that Wisconsin’s Commissioner of Education adopted Common Core’s standards without asking the engineering, science, and mathematics faculty at his own higher education institutions (and the mathematics teachers in the state’s own high schools) to do an analysis of Common Core’s definition of college readiness and to make public their recommendations. After all, who could be better judges of what students need for a STEM major?

Wisconsin clearly needs to revise Common Core’s mathematics standards as soon as possible so that its public schools are able to offer the coursework beginning in grade 5 or 6 that will enable mathematically able students to aim for a STEM major in college.  Unless, of course, the governor, the legislature, and the commissioner of education aren’t interested in having American-born and educated engineers, doctors, or scientists.   If that is the case, then keep the Common Core status quo.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D, is professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas. She was on Common Core’s Validation Committee from 2009-2010.  Her writings are available at:

Musical Notes on Common Core


I am thrilled to see a unique perspective from a music teacher on common core. As I reflected on my personal experience learning to play an instrument, I find the issue addressed in this article very concerning. First of all, I am not blessed with the natural ability of musicianship. I had to work very hard to be successful in playing the clarinet. I was not blessed with piano lessons as a young child and I had to practice daily to achieve what I have as a musician. Had I encountered the struggles and lack of math skills as a student, as described by this music teacher, I would never had continued as a musician. It was because of a partial music scholarships I was able continue my higher education until I obtained my degree and teaching credentials.  I wonder, what will the future hold, if only those learning to play instruments, are those that it comes naturally too.

As a public school teacher and a mother of children that were in public school (up until this year) I too have seen these changes in math curriculum. Especially in schools, such as our school district,  that use “fuzzy” math such as EveryDay Mathmatics. Here are problems she has seen affect her student’s ability to learn a musical instrument. Read the full article here.

1) An inability to conceptualize multiplication
2) An inability to deal with numbers in relationship to each other
3) An inability to conceptualize fractions or even understand what fractional terms represent
4) Difficulty in applying basic arithmetic to simple concepts within music
5) Physical handwriting skills/Motor Skills
6) Using information made up out of thin air emotionally based when writing essays on composers

The mathematical concerns (1-4)have been part of the Common Core debate.  The dumbing-down of our children’s mathematical abilities is described by Dr. James Milgram and this math teacher .  Looking at concern #5, there are valid arguments that common core’s removal of cursive handwriting and the continued focus on using computers and ipads, rather than physical writing, will continue to affect fine motor skills.  The last concern has been showing up in Common Core aligned curriculum.  Here is an example that is approved for use in Utah school’s, called ” Voices”, for teaching Literature and Writing.  You will see that as early as 1st grade, students are being taught to use emotions, rather than facts and figures to persuade and convince.

I agree with this teacher’s assessment of public education:

…I am completely alarmed on every level possible. I love my students, and I want nothing more than for them to become educated and positive members of our society as adults one day.  If we allow Common Core to become the foundation of our children’s education, the future of America will most certainly change for the worse.   Yes, our schools have slipped in the last two decades and need improvement.  But the Common Core mandate will only bring us further into the depths of producing a completely ill-educated society.