How To Clean Up the Common Core Mess in Massachusetts

Printed from:

With the onset of Common Core, Massachusetts’s education standards for public schools have declined. How can the state regain lost ground?

It’s actually not that hard. Solid standards already exist. What’s needed is the will to implement them.

Massachusetts can again develop effective non-Common Core standards for mathematics and English/reading if the state legislature requires either a return to the state’s pre-Common Core standards in English language arts/reading, science, or mathematics, or the development of K-12 standards in mathematics and in English/reading with the following features and guiding policies.


In mathematics:


1.  Standards for all basic arithmetical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, short and long division) and standard algorithms should be taught at the same grade levels as in Singapore Math’s original series for the elementary grades. The four operations should be learned with all the real numbers, positive and negative, and fractional forms like common fractions, decimals, and percents.

How do we know Singapore Mathematics works? Three Massachusetts public elementary schools in the North Middlesex Regional School District (which serves Ashby, Pepperell, and Townsend, all along the New Hampshire border) began teaching it in 2000. The results were encouraging, as articles hereherehere, and here show.

2.  Standards that enable all children in public elementary schools to be prepared via their mathematics curriculum to enroll in and complete a traditional Algebra I course in grade 7 or 8 before going on to advanced science and math in high school. Before 2010, about half of all grade 8 Massachusetts students had completed a traditional Algebra I course before entering grade 9. It sets them up for success in science, which depends on math.

3.  Standards/lessons from Dolciani-authored or co-authored mathematics textbooks in grade 8 and above, where possible. Mary P. Dolciani and the publisher Houghton Mifflin were known as the “king and queen” of secondary mathematics texbooks — from the 1960s to the 1990s. Dolciani died in 1985. Many, perhaps most, secondary algebra teachers in this country were trained on Dolciani-authored textbooks and continue to value them for their structure and method.

As one teacher commented:  “The books were literate in their context, never watered down, but not so abstract that a high school student couldn’t read and follow. What makes this book so unique is the fact that mathematical induction is introduced in Chapter 3 and is carried throughout the book. Normally mathematical induction is included at the end of a precalculus text and is never covered. No other precalculus book prior or since has used this approach. Mathematical induction is a proof-driven treatment for the topics which follow. It makes the students think in a logical manner and enables them, by proof, to understand the full argument of why certain ‘things happen’ in math as they do.”

4.  Standards for Euclidean geometry (with proofs) addressed in separate units in grades 6, 7, and/or 8 (as in Singapore Math), along with standards for separate algebra units, or in a full course in grade 9.

5.  Standards that enable high-achieving math students to enroll in and complete a traditional Algebra II course in grade 10 or 11 and to study trigonometry or a pre-calculus course in grade 11 or 12.


In English/reading:


1.  In the primary grades, explicit reading instruction with systematic phonics/phonemic awareness.  Usage/grammar/roots and prefixes/suffixes, as well as sentence structure and spelling (in other words, writing mechanics) should also be taught.

2.  Standards in grades 3-8 that require about half of what all elementary students read in whole-class history or language arts lessons to come from the excellent series of informational books on historical people and events in U.S. and world history published in the 1950s and 1960s by Random House Publishers.  See this link.

3.  Standards in grades 9-12 that require all high school students to become familiar with historically and culturally significant whole works from the following ten Literary Periods: Classical (1200 BCE–455 CE); Medieval (455 CE–1485 CE); Renaissance (1300–1660): Restoration and 18th Century (1660–1790); Colonial and Early National (1600–1830): Romantic (1790–1870): Realism and Naturalism (1870–1910); Modernist (1910–1945); Post World War II (1945–1980); and Contemporary (1980-2020). (“BCE” here refers to “Before Common Era,” often rendered “B.C.” elsewhere; “CE” here refers to “Common Era,” often rendered “A.D.” elsewhere.) Most of these Literary Periods are spelled out in an appendix in the latest version of Florida’s English language arts standards (page 165), together with the names of authors whose works illustrate their features and a list of the features themselves.

4.  Standards for a coherent literature/reading curriculum for K-12 that address, as did the Massachusetts pre-Common Core English language arts/reading standards, all four major types of literature:  poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic literature.  See the appendices in the latest version of Florida’s English language arts standards for lists of recommended titles and authors, from K to grade 12, for poetry, fiction, and dramatic literature.

5.  Reading lists showing titles or authors of well-known informational texts in these literary periods that serve as historical context for the literary works selected by the English teacher for classroom instruction. Appendix A and Appendix B in the 2013 version of the Massachusetts English Language Arts Curriculum Framework (which is a condensed version of the 2001/4 English Language Arts Curriculum Framework, composed by Sandra Stotsky) contain lists of recommended authors for K-8 informational reading (vetted by The Horn Book editors and listed under “essays” or “nonfiction” or “historical documents”), as well as recommended authors for 9-12 (vetted by a diverse group of literary scholars).

6.  Reading passages for test items for each tested grade that come from works by authors in these literary periods. As a committee of Massachusetts secondary school English teachers recommended after the first edition of its English standards in 1997, about 60 percent of the passages should be literary, and 40 percent non-literary. Passages from well-known speeches or biographies may be literary or non-literary. (Again, for lists, see the appendices of the recent Florida English Language Arts standards.)


For teacher licensure or certification in Massachusetts:


1.  All elementary, early childhood, and special education teachers (grades K-6) should continue to be required to pass the Reading Licensure Test (MTEL 90) developed in Massachusetts in 2001/2 (or its equivalent). This licensure test helped all teachers of young children to teach beginning reading so effectively that Massachusetts students on average earned first place on National Association of Educational Progress tests in grade 4 and grade 8 in reading and in mathematics from 2005 on. (Reading is crucial in mathematics because of word problems.) Massachusetts students still have the highest state averages in the country, probably because many teachers use the methods they learn to pass the test.

For a description of the Reading Licensure Test’s  development, see here.

2.  All prospective elementary, early childhood, and special education teachers should be required to take and pass the Bay State’s elementary mathematics licensure test (MTEL 53). The skills the test forces teachers to learn helped Massachusetts students earn first place on National Association of Educational Progress tests from 2009 on. This test has a relatively low pass rate overall.

3.  All cut-off scores for performance levels on all student or teacher tests should be set by Massachusetts parents, grade 11 or 12 teachers, and state legislators — instead of using the cut-off scores the state is given from outside the state and/or from the United States Department of Education.

4.  The state’s board of higher education and governor need to require the mathematics, science, and English teaching faculty at each public college or university in the state to analyze the state’s current high school standards for grades 9-12, and issue a signed public report containing their analysis.

5.  The governor and state secretary of education need to ask the math and English teaching faculty at each public college in the state to recommend in writing what standards should be added or changed to make sure that Massachusetts high school students are prepared for freshman and sophomore credit-bearing courses at that college if they plan to attend college in Massachusetts.


Stopping the Nonsense, and Strengthening Public Education


The chief purpose of a standards revision committee would be to strengthen public education in Massachusetts in order to remedy recent federal and state policies designed for low achievers. All students once learned that, regardless of academic achievement, they were politically equal to each other in our civic culture, with a shared civic identity. Yet, policy makers and philanthropists have led low achievers to believe they haven’t succeeded in school because of bigoted educators and communities.

As my last four books try to make clear, all parents and educators must revive the civic mission of their own public schools, and actively help to restore educated citizenship as the goal of K-12 public education. They will also have to help the state legislature to nullify the four-year state “plan” in education that was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 for approval under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act without state legislative approval.

Academic standards in public schools aren’t hopeless, but they need help. It starts with the will to do something about them.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Portions of this article appeared in an earlier article at Read other articles by Ms. Stotsky published by New Boston Post here.