Should American High Schools Prepare any Students for STEM? Common Core Doesn’t Think So

STEM-logoWhen 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 Stanford University 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.