It’s impossible to understand Common Core and its effect on math education without first understanding the history of American math education.

First, some numbers: on the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students scored 31st out of 35 OECD countries in math, or 42 of 72 countries overall, lagging behind nations like Lithuania, Hungary, and Italy. At the top are Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, whose students consistently score within the top ten, and whose education systems yield some very interesting case studies.

Now, it’s true that test scores are often faulted for being inaccurate indicators of ability and understanding. But perceptions are not much better: 46% of the scientists enrolled in the AAAS, the country’s largest scientific society, believe that STEM education in the United States is below average.

Thus we are faced with a paradox: how can a nation which ranks 2nd on the 2015 Global Creativity Index be perceived as having such a flawed math education system? What sort of systemic, uniquely American problems have math teachers faced in educating their students?

Math in the United States: The NCMR and the early days

To get to the heart of the problem, we have to start at the beginning.

In 1916, the National Committee on Mathematical Requirements was convened, promising a new, scientific approach to the study of math in the United States. While there had been regional educator associations based in New England or the Central States, the NCMR was the first national organization to recommend sweeping, transformational changes to math education. Chief among their recommendations was to provide all students a strong foundation and understanding of math that could be applied to everyday situations, and one that would stay with students for the rest of their lives.

If this sounds familiar, it should; as A.K. Whitney points out in her article for the Atlantic, these suggestions were oddly reminiscent of Common Core almost a century later. In between, however, was William Heard Kilpatrick, an influential educator whose 1920 report, “The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary Education,” set up an entirely new paradigm, arguing that, for the sake of student achievement, advanced math actually was a hindrance in critical problem solving.

By excluding advanced math to those who “showed an inclination for it” (like engineers and scientists), Whitney argues that Kilpatrick not only closed off such avenues to women (seen as less likely to become such specialists), but also put forth a retrograde, limiting notion of math as a subject only for the intellectual elite.

For many years, this mindset persisted in various forms, at least until the groundbreaking 1980 report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). In it, a panel of veteran educators and administrators noticed that across the country, students were learning math as disjointed, separate skills with little relation to each other–or to reality.

As the NCMR did six decades earlier, the NCTM realized that skills could not be practiced in a vacuum and were reliant on a strong grasp of fundamentals. More importantly, the NCTM recommended that educators should share resources and expertise with each other, and that problem solving had to be rooted in day-to-day life and feature an interdisciplinary aspect that was applicable to other fields like sciences, social studies, business, engineering, etc.

The 1980 NCTM report marked a groundbreaking turn in math education, and found wide reception in countries from Singapore to Japan. As Japanese teachers have attested, along with organic, local innovations, the NCTM’s plan revolutionized math, turning stolid classrooms into lively, productive spaces that eventually produced some of the most advanced math students in the world.

Systemic problems: Putting the cart before the horse

But the NCTM’s 1980 recommendations, at least until Common Core, were not followed in the United States. Once again, America innovated a world-beating plan for math education (and one put to good use in other nations), but failed to do the same for itself.

The culprit? Systemic barriers to math education, which can be broken down into three general categories.

Lack of support

First, teachers don’t receive enough support. As veteran reporter Elizabeth Green writes, “With the Common Core, teachers are once more being asked to unlearn the old approach and learn an entirely new one, essentially on their own.”

This is a systemic failure and one that can’t be pinned on teachers or administrators, who face shrinking budgets and ever-hostile local, state, and national governments. Often, the first victim of budget cuts is support staff like certification specialists–people who assist new teachers by providing curriculum, materials, and guidance when they need it the most.

Lack of collaboration

As evidenced by nations like Japan, which consistently produces excellent students, collaboration between teachers is critical to improvement. Yet compared to Japan, teachers in the United States spend too little time on collaborating with colleagues.

The reason for the lack of collaboration is a simple, if unexpected one: far too many hours spent in the classroom. American teachers average 1,051 hours yearly, while teachers in Japan average 500 hours yearly. Needless to say, more time spent teaching and filling out paperwork is time that cannot be used meeting and learning from veteran teachers.

The lack of teamwork between American teachers is not new, and is so wide-ranging that it has been commented on by observers, journalists, and education professors alike. But this trend is likely only to worsen, especially given that so many states are considering merit pay; teachers may well end up competing against, rather than cooperating with, one another.

Poor curriculum

Further, as Jason Zimba, a leading figure behind the design of Common Core, pointed out, math curricula and materials throughout the country are flawed. As Zimba and his fellow designers understand, the heart of the problem is not Common Core. Instead, it’s poor curriculum, which forces rote memorization and solving unrealistic problems with little resemblance to reality, and incredibly flawed textbooks.

In fact, nonprofit EdReports has issued several reviews of math textbooks from large publishing companies. Unfortunately, the results were dismal: only 11 of 80 textbooks were rated as being aligned to Common Core, with many of the culprits being large, multinational education publishers.

In summary

The problems with math education in America are deep barriers born of flaws with the system. Yet things do not have to be this way. Check back next week for our next installment, where we’ll examine the differences between foreign and American math education.