What follows below is the feedback I provided on the proposed Core Standards for Mathematics. These represent my own opinions on the direction mathematics reform should take. As far as I know, the changes I propose have not been sufficiently supported by research. However, I hope I may provide a fresh perspective on the direction the mathematics curriculum should take to address some of the existing problems.
I'd like to start with some background about myself, to provide a context for this critique. I was an accelerated math student in high school and majored in Mathematics in college. These views are my subjective interpretations of the mathematics curriculum as I experienced it, and the areas of mathematics in college that I felt unprepared for. My objection to the proposed Core Standards is that I do not view them as reforming these areas where I felt unprepared. Instead, all the Core Standards seem to do is set in stone the same failing curriculum I experienced as a student.
Overall I feel that the Standards for Practice expressed on pages 4-5 are solid goals for mathematics education to strive for. However, my major critique of the Core Standards is that I do not think they are sufficient to meet these goals. Two of the Standards for Practice strike me as being unsupported by the proposed curriculum: (3) Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others and (5) Use appropriate tools strategically. The former requires a solid foundation in logic, set theory and critical thinking, while the latter requires an introduction to computation science. The standards that follow do little to reinforce these skills.
In order for students to construct and critique arguments, the students must first know the basic structure of an logical argument. How can students be expected to give valid arguments when the definitions of validity, soundness, completeness, and consistency are omitted from the mathematics standards? The only objective that seemed to actually address this was in the High School Algebra Standards: “Understand that to solve an equation algebraically, one makes logical deductions from the equality asserted by the equation”. I respect that this objective is included, but don't think that the curriculum leading up to it adequately supports it. When I was first exposed to college level mathematics, the notation system of formal logic was used extensively by my professors. My education leading up to that point had not covered this notation, and it felt like I was learning a second language in addition to the mathematical concepts. The notions of formal logic are not complicated, but earlier exposure to these ideas would have made me more prepared for college mathematics.
In my opinion, the K-8 standards are too focused on number and computation. The objectives covered in the K-8 curriculum reflect a notion of numbers consistent with the view of mathematics in the early 1800s. In 1889, when Peano's Axioms were introduced, the mathematical notion of a “natural number” changed. The “natural numbers” have been redefined in terms of set theory since the 1900s. Students need to have a concept of numbers that are consistent with the modern set theoretic constructions. The pen-and-paper computations covered in elementary school are valuable, but have in many instances been replaced by technology. It's not enough for students to know how to perform addition, but the modern student needs to also know that the operation of addition is analogous with joining sets. In mathematics, number theory is built upon the foundation of set theory. Focusing on numbers before sets is illogical considering the hierarchy of mathematical knowledge.
Set theory is also based on logic, which is also missing in action. Several of the objectives mention making logical conclusions about problems, but where's the logic? The mathematical definitions of “and”, “or”, “xor”, “not”, “nor”, “nand”, “implies”, “for every”, “there exists” and “proves” are absent from the standards. The relationship between the basic operations of logic and those of arithmetic needs to be thoroughly established. This is not only important from a mathematical standpoint, but it is essential to learning how computational technology works. The operations of arithmetic can be build from the basic building blocks of logic, and that is how computers manage to produce the calculations that they do. All students will work with technology in some manner or another, and developing an understanding of how that technology works will make them more effective users of technology.
The focus of the K-8 curriculum is to develop students' understanding formal axiomatic systems. Mathematics should be presented in the form a game. The rules of the game determine patterns that are produced in the process. Too much of a focus on the outcomes underemphasizes the importance of the rules to begin with. Algebra, in particular, requires students to rewrite expressions using the properties of numbers. The failure of the curriculum is that students have no prior experience with substitution systems. The algebra student is essentially thrown into the game without knowing the rules. It's no wonder that algebra presents such a challenge for mathematics eduction.
In the High School Standards, my main objection is to the separation between the general curriculum and the STEM curriculum. Most of the objectives labeled as STEM objectives, should be included in the general curriculum. STEM students need a more thorough picture of mathematics than that presented here. As an example, complex numbers are treated as a STEM only topic in the standards. The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra depends on the field of complex numbers and all students should be exposed to this result. Students preparing for STEM need to go beyond complex numbers to constructions such as dual numbers and quaternions which would help prepare students to acquire a more general notion of Clifford algebras in college. These tools may seem obscure to traditional educators, but are essential tools to physicists and engineers. Quaternions have several useful properties that make them ideal for modeling rotations, and dual quaternions can be used to represent rigid transformations.
One of my pet peeves about high school mathematics is that the picture of physics presented there was radically different than the picture presented in college. As an example, consider the following algebra problem: “Joe and Sue live 10 miles apart. Joe heads towards Sue's house at 5mph and Sue heads towards Joe's house at 3mph. If they both leave at the same time, how long until they meet?” Questions like this are usually represented as linear equations, like “3x+5x=10”. However, this gives students the false impression that this is an accurate model of velocity in the real world. The fact of the matter is that this equation is only reasonable for small numbers. A change in the numbers included in this problem could invalidate the model. Consider the modified question, “Joe and Sue live 10 light-years apart. Joe heads towards Sue's house at .8c and Sue heads towards Joe's house at .9c. If they both leave at the same time, how long until they meet?” Under these figures, a linear model of time is no longer accurate. Time slows for Joe and Sue relative to a stationary observer, and the question of “how long until they meet” is more complicated than it appears on the surface. If they each start a stopwatch at the moment of departure, their clocks will have different readings when they meet. Students in a STEM course of study need to understand that velocity in space-time is fixed at the speed of light, and what we perceive as motion is a rotation of this space-time vector.
There are several other topics that I consider important for STEM students that go beyond the standards. The study of triangles in geometry needs to extend to ordered triangles, and the linear algebra needed to manipulate such triangles. The notion of “angle” as presented in the high school curriculum is insufficient. Students need to start thinking about angles as they relate to the dot product (inner product) of vectors. The trigonometric functions of sine and cosine need to be connected to complex exponents by way of Euler's formula: “eix = cos x+i sin x”. The properties of logarithms also need to be explicitly covered in the curriculum. Covering these notions in the high school curriculum would make students better prepared for subsequent studies of calculus and geometry.
Some of these suggestions may seem like obscure areas of mathematics, but my argument is that they shouldn't be. If the purpose of K-8 is to develop an understanding of what formal axiomatic systems are, then the focus of 9-12 should be on discovering the useful properties that result from the standardly accepted axioms. I once conducted a job interview where a mathematics student, like me, was applying for a software engineering position, also like me. My employer had brought me into the interview to determine whether or not the candidate was ready to apply his mathematically expertise to computer programming. During the interview, the candidate mentioned quaternions as one of his areas of interest. In the software developed at this company, orientations and rotations are routinely stored and manipulated as quaternions. When I asked how the candidate would use quaternions to compute a rotation, he was stumped. He also became extremely interested in the interview at that point and was eager to learn more about the technique. My question had revealed that the abstract mathematics he was familiar with had a real purpose behind it – a practical use within the field of computer science. It's this kind of disconnection between abstract and applied applied mathematics that seems to be one of the major problems with mathematics education.
Abstraction plays a large role in mathematics and it's usually the use of mathematics in other disciplines which connects it to students' real world experiences. I was fortunate enough to have learned most of my mathematical knowledge in the context of computer science. Mathematics and computer science share a good deal of common ground. Furthermore, working with computers has become an essential skill for career-readiness in modern times. Learning how technology works adds to ones ability to effectively use that technology. When the Standards for Practice call for students to use computational tools proficiently, the lack of standards addressing how that technology works will hinder the obtainment of that goal. When students use computers or calculators to produce computations, they need to know that they are not working with “real numbers”. Not all real numbers are computable. Until the mathematics curriculum prepares students to tackle such notions, students will not be college or career ready.
One of the considerations for the Core Standards is that they address 21st century skills. Reading the mathematics standards, I do not think that this consideration has been met. The mathematics included in this curriculum is dated and fails to address the advances made in the past century. The Core Standards for math focus on applying known algorithms to problems with known solutions. A 21st century education needs to focus on creating and analyzing algorithms. Students not only need to know algorithms for solving mathematics problems, but need to be able to think critically about the efficiency of those algorithms. The Core Standards are a step in the wrong direction in this regard. All these standards will accomplish is that mathematics education will be catered to address the specific problems covered by the standards. Teachers will teach to the test and the critical thinking skills hinted at in the Standards for Practice will be lost in the assessment process.
I appreciate that these standards are chosen based on evidence from educational research. However, I think that the research supporting these standards is biased by the currently existing assessments. The evidence showing that American students are behind in math means there is still a gap between the standards in place and the skills students need to be college and career ready. A fixed set of national standards is not a viable solution to the problem. What the education system needs is a solid framework for an experimentation cycle in which standards are continually tested and revised to meet the changing needs of students.