By Chuck Ormsby

Regarding the recent debate in the Deseret News between Sandra Stotsky ("This is why I oppose Common Core," July 25) and Jennifer Johnson ("Clarifying criticism of Common Core," Aug. 6), let me give a perspective from the trenches.

I currently teach calculus I and II at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and coordinate the calculus I program for approximately 65 percent of incoming science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students (nearly 400 freshmen). I also served as a school committee member for a Massachusetts suburban school for six years (2003-2009), during which time I focused heavily on the K-8 mathematics curriculum (where I believe many of the problems in mathematics education originate). I am not an expert on the Common Core standards, so I am commenting on a statement of "fact" that both sides in this debate seem to agree on.

It appears that Common Core standards set an expectation that students will achieve some reasonable level of competency in algebra through algebra II, but no expectation of competency in, or even a basic familiarity with, trigonometry. Whether a student has aspirations in the STEM disciplines or not, I think this is a major failing of the standard. Expectations in mathematics are being set well below the level needed to prepare students for post-secondary studies in a broad range of disciplines — not just the STEM fields.

We all know that whatever standard is set, some students will exceed the standard and some will fall short — many far short. Consider the range of likely outcomes if the standard was set, not at algebra II, but at basic competency in trigonometry.

If we targeted trigonometry, then those that fall well short of the standard might at least absorb a modicum of geometry and basic algebra (a reasonable foundation for entering the trades; a path that should be more respected).

Those that fall just short of the standard will have mastered algebra II — a good foundation for accounting, health care workers, management sciences, liberal arts, etc. These students could conceivably pursue a STEM career after some remediation (e.g., taking trigonometry at a community college).

Students that hit the standard (mastery of trigonometry) would be ready to tackle calculus without remediation and therefore would be prepared to pursue either a STEM major or a serious career in, for instance, finance or economics.

A student that exceeded the standard would leave high school with a solid algebra/trigonometry foundation plus some (possibly a substantial) degree of understanding of calculus and could enter college with advanced placement credit.

This is the distribution of outcomes we should seek. Given the spread in achievement that is bound to occur with any standard, the center should be set at trigonometry; not algebra II.

Nearly two-thirds of our entering STEM students require remediation because of poor algebra and trigonometry skills. For non-STEM students, the decline in math skills for entering freshmen is so severe it has led to a watering down of the mathematics requirements for many degree programs; for example, in economics (no calculus) and the management sciences (watered-down calculus with no trigonometry).

14 comments on this story

The sad fact is that because students are not college-ready, colleges are dumbing down their curriculums to be student-ready. The downward spiral of expectations makes the "college ready" standard a moving/descending target.

I'll close by noting that this view from the trenches is from a trench in Massachusetts: one of the highest ranked states in the country for high school mathematics achievement. What does that say about the state of affairs in the other 49 states?

I must side with Stotsky: We should be raising expectations, not cementing the current state of affairs.

Charles Ormsby is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.