The New Math Less Is More

The New Math
Less Is More

How does one adjust the course of a curriculum that’s been gathering inertia for decades? The developers of NGSS and Common Core math started by reducing the mass of content that had accumulated over the years, often in haphazard fashion. “Mainly, the U.S. mathematics curriculum prior to the Common Core was a geological accretion of additions, mostly, and [some] compressions over 50 years,” Daro said. “There was a lot of mathematical junk food and traveling down rabbit holes and up cul-de-sacs.”

Schweingruber made a similar point. “The U.S. has a mile-wide, inch deep curriculum with tons and tons of things and ideas for kids to learn, but not an opportunity to go in depth,” she said. As the authors got down to work on Common Core in 2009 and on NGSS a year later, some of their first discussions were about what to leave in and what to take out. “It required some argument on the part of folks in the framework about what that baseline really would look like,” Schweingruber said.

The final documents omitted a number of familiar topics. The NGSS writers eliminated instruction in the rote formula for stoichiometry calculations (the process for quantifying elements at different stages of a chemical reaction) from the high school chemistry curriculum. Daro and his collaborators on Common Core math, William McCallum of the University of Arizona and Jason Zimba of Student Achievement Partners, decided the technique of “simplifying” answers didn’t add much to mathematical understanding, so they took it out.

By removing content, the creators of Common Core math and NGSS hoped to expose core disciplinary ideas. A good example of this is how the Common Core teaches proportionality. Before, proportionality occupied about 10 percent of math instruction in grades six and seven. The main outcome of all that instructional time was that given two equivalent fractions, students could cross-multiply in order to find a missing term.

“What they’re learning is: The way you find the fourth number is by setting up this gadget called a proportion,” Daro said. “That’s not really learning anything about proportionality, that’s learning how to get answers to problems in this chapter.”

Common Core math doesn’t mention cross-multiplying, and it cuts out the special case of finding a missing fourth term. Instead, it focuses on the idea of a ratio, which begins modestly in sixth grade and develops all the way through calculus. Students begin by looking at a table of equivalent ratios — also presented as a double number line — and progress to the understanding that the slope of a line is a ratio.

“[The Common Core writers] said, look, let’s figure out what’s important about fractions and choose a path through them, which leads to ratio and proportion, which leads to linear functions, which leads to aspects of algebra,” said Alan Schoenfeld, a professor of education and mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The understanding of slope as a ratio feeds into an even more fundamental emphasis in Common Core math: the analysis of functions. By thinking about the slope of a line as a ratio, students get in the habit of analyzing the parts of a linear function so they can see how changes in elements of the function affect the relationship between inputs and outputs.

Daro sees this shift from solving equations to analyzing functions as one of the biggest conceptual changes in the Common Core.

“The important line of progress is the line that begins with the theory of equations, a 19th-century central focus, to calculus and analysis, which is 20th-century [mathematics],” he said. “It’s a move from spending almost all your time solving equations towards analyzing functions.”

Chuck Reynolds

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