NPR just ran a piece courtesy of the Hechinger report profiling Jason Zimba. If David Coleman is widely known as the Architect of Common Core, Zimba is That Other Guy who worked on Common Core, handling the math side of things. He never quite achieved the profile of David Coleman, but he's been right there every step of the way.
Zimba has always seemed to me (and I should note that all of my impressions of reformsters are based on twelfth-hand information from reading and youtubing and who knows, if I were actually to sit in a room with David Coleman, I might find him pleasant and personable and not at all possessed of a huge helping of hubris) to be somewhat more human than Coleman, but I've paid less attention to him because math is not my area of expertise. It's hard to sort these guys out; some, like Coleman, seem to have sought out the work propelled by sheer ego, while others seem to have just blundered into the reform biz without really understanding what they were doing.
The profile by Sarah Garland really wants us to see Zimba as a human being. It opens with a scene to remind us that he has children, and that the older one attends a public school, where Common Core is used. "I would be sleeping in if I weren't frustrated," says Zimba, speaking of his Saturday morning extra math lessons for his daughter to make up for what's lacking in the public school. He is apparently also frustrated by how Common Core is playing out in schools across the country.
Common Core was supposed to fuel a revolution. It was supposed to drive improvements in curricula and materials. It would push for excellence and provide the yardstick to measure progress toward that mountain of math awesometude. That was all its creators wanted, and while they knew it would be tough, they were surprised by the pushback.
"The creation of the standards is enshrouded in mystery for people,"
Zimba says. "I wish people understood what a massive process it was, and
how many people were involved. It was a lot of work."
Well, yes. It was shrouded in mystery on purpose. In fact, it was shrouded in mysteries that were wrapped in lies about the involvement of classroom teachers and international benchmarks. But Garland says that the math standards were essentially written by three guys, and not for the first time, I'm reading an account that echoes those SF movies where scientists don't realize that their purely scientific experiment is actually going to be used as a weapon for evil.
"It was a design project, not a political project," says Phil Daro, a
former high school algebra teacher who was on the three-man writing team
with Zimba and William McCallum, head of the math department at the
University of Arizona. "It was not our job to do the politics while we
I've written about McCallum before, a sad scientist who simply didn't and doesn't grasp the context of CCSS, the way it plays out in the real world, and the motivation of the people powering it. We just built the bomb for good. We never intended it to be used against humans, so humans should not be upset when they get blown up.
Zimba's humble early trajectory wouldn't suggest that he was headed for this kind of government work, but when at Oxford, he "befriended" David Coleman, and in 1999 the two hooked up again to tinker with the idea of an education consulting firm. They started Grow Network, a company that produced reports to help districts and states make sense of the new NCLB test results. "Zimba had a genius for creating reports that were mathematically precise but also humanely phrased, Coleman says." That's striking all by itself; I can't tell you how much of Coleman I've read, and how very rarely he acknowledges the value of any other person's work. Grow was bought out by McGraw-Hill and Coleman and Zimba headed in semi-separate directions. Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington (in Vermont-- there's a great monument there worth visiting) where Coleman's mother was president.
Together they wrote a paper in 2007 addressing the issue of many (maybe too many) standards for math across the states. It was the right paper at the right time. Shortly thereafter, in this squeaky-clean NPR version of history, when the CCSSO and NGA decided to tackle standards, "Coleman and Zimba were picked to help lead the effort." Can't help feeling we've skipped an awful lot of insider history right there. But Student Achievement Partners were formed and given a mountain of money to get to work.
"We were looking for a skill set that was fairly unique," says Chris
Minnich, executive director of CCSSO. "We needed individuals that would
know the mathematics — Jason and the other writers obviously know the
mathematics — but would also be able to work with the states, and a
bunch of teachers who would be involved."
That's a fun quote. Particularly the "bunch of teachers" part. Does it suggest that Coleman was on board primarily for his shmoozing abilities?
At this point, Garland's grasp of history gets even slipperier. We do get the inspiring story of Zimba and McCallum working long hours, slaving over the standards in the garage (just like Bill Gates starting Microsoft). She notes again that he was human, with a life and a family and a day job, spiced up with a story of some colleague telling him to stop texting about standards stuff while his second daughter was being born.
During the course of the next year, they consulted with state officials,
mathematicians and teachers, including a union group. Draft after draft
was passed back and forth over email.
"Consulting." Great word. Then the final standards were released in 2010. Garland notes that "by the following year" forty states adopted them; she does not note that many adopted them before they were written, though she does note that adoption happened "thanks in part to financial incentives dangled by the Obama administration" which is kind of like saying I paid my mortgage payments thanks in part to a Keeping My House incentive dangled by my bank.
Garland's timeline for the resistance to CCSS is even more...um... debatable. She marks the pushback to 2013 and the wave of CCSS test results. She says resistance didn't enter the mainstream until this year, when a father's posting about CCSS homework went viral and Glen Beck picked it up, followed by ridicule from Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert. Which is about the most truncated history of Common Core opposition I've ever read.
Now CCSS allies are trying to salvage the cause by calling for testing delays. But the writers are just puzzled by all the fuss.
"When I see some of those problems posted on Facebook, I think I
would have been mad, too," McCallum says. Daro tells a story about his
grandson, who brought home a math worksheet labeled "Common Core," with a
copyright date of 1999.
They argue there's actually very
little fuzziness to the math in the Common Core. Students have to
memorize their times tables by third grade and be able to do the kind of
meat-and-potatoes problems Zimba asks of his daughter during their
Saturday tutoring sessions, requirements he believes the so-called
Common Core curriculum at her school essentially ignored.
In other words, they wrote it right, but everybody is reading it incorrectly.We built the bomb for Good. We do not understand why people are being blown up with it.
Even as Zimba and his colleagues defend the standards against cries of
federal overreach, they are helpless when it comes to making sure
textbook publishers, test makers, superintendents, principals and
teachers interpret the standards in ways that will actually improve
American public education, not make it worse.
All of this has pushed Zimba to a new conclusion, a new crusade, a new battle.
These days, Zimba and his colleagues acknowledge better standards aren't enough.
used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be
enough," he says. "In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows
from the test."
Now, he says, "I think it's curriculum."
Yes, the problem is that we didn't build a powerful enough bomb. If we built a bigger bomb, then it would be used the correct way.
It is hard not to see these guys as hopelessly naive about How Things Work, about the implications of the work they were doing. I sympathize in part-- when he claims that publishers are mucking up the works by using CCSS to market any old crap lying around the warehouse, I don't disagree, but at the same time, dude, what did you think they were going to do with the bomb once you had finished building it?? You may have thought you were building an instrument of peace and wisdom and growth, but you should have paid better attention to the people who were signing your checks and collecting your work, because this is exactly what they wanted it for.
All three are trying to fix it. McCallum has some little start-up you've never heard of to make math apps. Daro is writing a complete math curriculum for Pearson, presumably because, you know, the politics and business are not his problem. Zimba's trying to work on it, too. None of them seem to see their own hand in the mess that is now choking public education. Granted, I see all of these characters through the smudgy lens of various journalists, but I keep feeling as if Coleman knows exactly what he's doing, but The Other Guys don't really get it. They don't see the battlefield because they are only focused on the bomb.
Zimba does not pick up the lesson that he now realizes that he was wrong back when he thought the standards would fix everything, so maybe he's wrong again now that he thinks national curriculum is the answer. And he doesn't seem to have any sense of the moral or ethical implications of trying to rewrite the education system for everybody part time in his garage-- did nobody at any point say, "Gee, for a project this massive, maybe there's a better way and other people who should be involved." While he seems to lack the strutting ballsiness of Coleman, he still must have the hubris required to think, "Yeah, I could write the math guidelines for every student in the country."