As Georgia revises math standards, some push for big changes

As Georgia reviews what public school students learn in math, the first step will almost certainly be a strong cry for change — but it remains unclear how much that will influence the outcome.

Gov. Brian Kemp and state Superintendent Richard Woods kicked off the process earlier this month with the meeting of a citizen review committee to which they appointed a number of prominent critics of the Common Core State Standards.

Big changes to standards would necessarily mean big — and expensive — changes to textbooks and other academic materials, intensive teacher training and an overhaul of the standardized tests given to students in grades 3-8 and high school. Woods told the state Board of Education last week that he wants board members to adopt new standards this June. Next year, teachers would be retrained and tests rewritten, with changes fully implemented in fall 2021. An overhaul of English language arts standards would follow through the same steps one year later.

Dana Rickman, vice president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, says her group supports a review, but not a wholesale change, saying a big turnover will slow academic progress.

“We should not be undergoing a full, wholesale dismantling,” Rickman said.

Common Core was an effort to write academic standards shared by all 50 states, with support from then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. One central idea was that students should learn more analytically and less by memorization. Almost a decade ago, 46 states including Georgia adopted Common Core-inspired documents describing what students in each grade should learn in math and English language arts.

But Common Core set off fierce criticism, with complaints including improper federal influence by the administration of President Barack Obama, undesirable changes to traditional math teaching methods, and a failure to track enough students to take calculus in high school. The support from Obama tinged the issue with partisan politics, with opponents trending conservative.

In response to criticism, Georgia made a few changes in 2015, producing a renamed Georgia Standards of Excellence. However, both Kemp and Woods say that was just a fresh coat of paint on Common Core. Kemp repeatedly pledged while running for governor to dismantle Common Core.

For long-suffering Common Core opponents, the ascendancy of Kemp and Woods has opened a window to undo what they see as a colossal mistake. Citizen review committee member Jane Robbins, for example, emphasizes the need to teach arithmetic using traditional methods — the “standard algorithm" — in earlier grades. That would mean, for example, memorizing multiplication tables instead of learning more about the inner workings of math.

“The ideology is that you don't need to teach children the standard algorithm, you don't need to have children able to do math problems fluently until they're 11 or 12 years old,” Robbins said. “That's not the way the brain works and it's not how high-achieving countries teach math.”

Jim Arnold, a retired school superintendent who lives in Midland, said changes in math instruction that made it harder for parents to help young children with homework indicate an important problem.

“Change in this case done little more than infuriate and alienate parents and frustrate students,” he said.

A report from the citizens review committee, compiled by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, is scheduled to be published later this month. The next step calls for panels of teachers to review grade-level standards and suggest revisions. Those revisions would then be examined by a third group called the academic review committee. Eventually, the state Board of Education would seek public comment and then vote.

The key question may be what the teachers will do. Some education and professional groups support Georgia's current standards and are likely to oppose big changes. The Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, says that under current standards, students “learn grade-level appropriate content with the development of conceptual understanding and critical thinking skills that prepare them for higher mathematics content.”