John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column
RALEIGH — Along with most other states, North Carolina is in the process of adopting new Common Core national standards for reading and mathematics. The good news is that the Common Core is much better than North Carolina’s previously reading and math standards. The bad news is that, at least in the area of math, the new standards are inadequate to the task of raising North Carolina’s math performance to that of the highest-performing states and nations.
Higher math and science proficiency among our young people would have big payoffs in the modern international economy. You’ve probably heard politicians, business leaders, and educators make this point a million times – okay, well, maybe only a thousand times or so, but who’s counting?
This proposition may sound like a cliché, but it happens to be empirically demonstrable. In my new book Our Best Foot Forward, I discuss recent research on the relationship between student performance and economic growth. One study I cite estimated that for every half a standard deviation increase in average math and science scores, a country’s subsequent rate of economic growth averaged a full percentage point higher per year. In the current environment of anemic GDP growth rates, this qualifies as a huge effect.
Right now, the math proficiency of North Carolina’s students would rank 18th out of 24 industrialized nations in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim if we were a separate country. If we increased our average math proficiency to that of high-ranking countries such as Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Finland, and Canada, that would represent about half a standard deviation, meaning that we could expect a one-point annual rise in our long-term GDP growth rate. That would transform North Carolina’s economy from a laggard back into a leader.
Increasing the math proficiency of North Carolina students from its current middling rank to a high rank will require significant action across multiple policy fronts. It will require higher-performing teachers paid by performance, not longevity. It will require greater parental choice and competition among educational providers. And it will require the kind of clear, rigorous academic standards that top-performing countries tend to publish and follow.
Unfortunately, the Common Core math standards North Carolina is about to implement satisfy neither the “clear” nor the “rigorous” criterion. I admit that they will be an improvement over North Carolina’s previous state standards – which earned a D from the Thomas Fordham Foundation’s nationwide assessment of math standards back in 2010 – but the Common Core standards nevertheless fail to set the bar high enough.
In a recent EducationNext article, several independent reviewers offered candid assessments of the new math standards North Carolina and other states are adopting. According to Stanford University mathematician James Milgram, a member of the Common Core committee who declined to endorse its results, the math standards set expectations the equivalent of about a grade-level below those of the highest-performing American states and about two grade-levels below those of the highest-performing countries. Another expert, Jonathan Goodman of New York University, described the Common Core math standards as perhaps comparable to those of competing countries in early grades but as setting “significantly lower expectations with respect to algebra and geometry than the published standards of other countries.”
In particular, the Common Core’s “college readiness” standard doesn’t require material such as trigonometry, the Binomial Theorem, logarithms, exponential functions, and complex numbers that are the indispensable building blocks of any higher-level math work.
North Carolina jumped aboard the Common Core train a couple of years ago, in response to large financial incentives from the federal government. Proponents emphasized that the new standards were national but not federal, in the sense that they were created by associations of state political and education leaders rather than the U.S. Department of Education.
So what? The problem lies not in who wrote the standards but in the standards themselves. We can do better. And in the interest of economic competitiveness alone, we need to do better.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward, a book on North Carolina’s economy. It is available at JohnLockeStore.com.