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Common Core Standards = Success in Math

This “guest” IAE Blog entry was written by Madeline Ahearn (administrator of kindergarten through 12th grade mathematics for the Eugene, Oregon 4J School District) and Dev Sinha (associate professor of mathematics at the University of Oregon). It was originally published on May 24, 2015, by the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper, and is reproduced here with the permission of the authors and the Eugene Register-Guard.


In the 1980s, Barry Marshall had a theory that some ulcers were caused by bacteria, not acidity or stress. He ran experiments, and then pursued his research at a university, eventually establishing his hypothesis. Within a few years, treatments throughout the world had changed. In 2005, Dr. Marshall won a Nobel Prize.

At about the same time, Deborah Ball had a theory that her third-graders’ difficulty with fractions came not from an inability to remember facts but a lack of conceptual models and precise but age-appropriate language. After success in her own classroom, she went on to become a leader in mathematics education, establishing her theories through research studies.

She is now dean of the College of Education at the University of Michigan and a strong national advocate for teacher professional training, while still teaching elementary students every summer.

Unlike the medical setting, which regularly witnesses widespread adoption of best practices in a short period, as of 2010 very few classrooms were employing Dr. Ball’s techniques for teaching fractions. Fortunately, most classrooms in our country are doing so now — thanks to the Common Core, which incorporated her approach.

The Common Core standards put fewer topics at each grade level so there is more time for students to develop a depth of understanding and to gain the ability to apply it, which research literature such as Ball’s work clearly recommends.

This focusing of math topics is the approach that countries with high-performing education systems have taken for years. Additionally, the standards are put together coherently, so they reinforce one another as a student moves from one grade to the next.

To promote student engagement and long-term learning, the standards call for more integrated learning and emphasize meaningful application as much as knowing mathematical procedures. A good high-school example would be asking students to prepare a report for the state Legislature on the prospect of raising the speed limit, based on calculations of braking distances, data about accidents from other states that have already done so, and estimates of gasoline usage.

Oregon’s recent adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards offers us further opportunity to integrate subject areas. A group of Lane County [Oregon] teachers in third through eighth grades is working with University of Oregon faculty and local business people to create exactly these kinds of “superlessons,” which promote deeper learning in science and math together.

This is incredibly hard work — but it’s worth it. For example, one rural teacher in Lane County who adopted new freely available resources last year found her fourth-graders much more engaged, taking ownership of their learning through discussions. She later witnessed over 90 percent of them meeting grade level expectations, a big change from a typical 55 percent at her school.

Every single professional society in mathematics and mathematics education in the country strongly supports the Common Core, and even “non-Common Core” states have effectively adopted it as well through their teacher training programs, professional learning, and curricula.

Our resource challenges in Oregon mean that our teachers are trying to create these deep opportunities for children in classrooms with twice as many students as in other states, and a much shorter school year. Our teachers are making heroic efforts to improve how they serve our students under these conditions. Education advocacy in our community should put its energy toward addressing these clear resource deficiencies.

The Common Core will not be fully implemented overnight, or even over one or two years. Many teachers, such as those in Eugene’s K-12 Math Teacher Leader group, have been working toward the transition for years. The needed shifts in many aspects of education — instructional practices, curriculum, assessment, teacher professional development, higher education — are challenging, but together create positive changes which reinforce each other.

As a classroom and a content expert who have been working together, we are excited by the progress and the further possibilities. As people who support teachers in this transition, we ask that parents and our community be open to change in how we teach mathematics.

We wouldn’t expect our doctors to use all the same medical techniques as when we were growing up, and we shouldn’t expect that from teachers either.

Madeline Ahearn is administrator of kindergarten through 12th grade mathematics for the Eugene School District. Dev Sinha is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Oregon. For more information, visit

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Suggested Readings from Information Age Education

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Technology and problem solving: PreK-12 Education for adult life, careers, and further education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

Moursund, D. (2015). Possible futures of precollege education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

Moursund, D. (3/5/2015). Education for the coming technological singularity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R., eds. (2013). Common Core State Standards for K-12 Education in America. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

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