The Story Behind Common Core Mathematics: An Interview with Dr. William Schmidt

October 23, 2014

By Sarah Galey

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center (EPC) at MSU.

Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Schmidt began research that laid the foundation for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics. In 1995, along with an international team of researchers, Dr. Schmidt started the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Achievement) project – a massive, global effort to “internationally benchmark” mathematics and science curriculum. TIMSS also provided information on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students compared to that of students in other countries.

The impetus behind this research, as well as common academic standards, can be traced back to the worry over the quality of an American education system in the face of a growing global economy and rising international competition. A Nation At Risk, published in 1984, famously warned of the “rising tide of mediocrity” in U.S. schools, which prompted concerns over whether or a not U.S. curriculum was on par with those of other high achieving countries.

Standards like the CCSS, which are “internationally benchmarked,” are designed to better prepare students for college and career success in a global economy.

An “Internationally Benchmarked” Curriculum

Dr. Schmidt elaborated on the research and ideas behind international benchmarking for curriculum standards.

“The results from our own national assessment and all the international tests consistently showed that US students were behind,” explained Dr. Schmidt. “So the governors thought, ‘We need to benchmark ourselves,’ which is a business idea. Businesses compete against other businesses internationally and they want to know what the competition is doing so it made all kinds of sense. But people talked about it without any real sense of how to do it. In 1995, in the first TIMSS study we actually undertook this task; to really study and find an international benchmark.”

“In this sense,” said Dr. Schmidt, “my definition of international benchmarking is taking a complete look at other countries and what they teach at each grade level. We analyzed their standards and we looked at what top achieving countries did and then abstracted a model of what topics should be covered at which grades. That benchmark then is a roadmap. They say, for example, that these are the topics that should be taught in second grade, or third grade according to the benchmark.”

Dr. Schmidt, however, does point out that the idea is not to copy the benchmarks exactly, but to use them as a guide for creating a rigorous curriculum, which is what’s behind the CCSS in mathematics. Essentially, what the CCSS in mathematics does is take the best ideas about teaching and learning math from around the world and create a curricular framework around those ideas upon which teachers can build their own lesson plans.

Focus, Coherence, and Rigor

In order to transform academic standards in mathematics in the United States, the designers of the CCSS in mathematics paid careful attention to the lessons learned from the TIMSS study.

“There were three principles we discovered in that process,” explained Dr. Schmidt. “Coherence, focus, and rigor. These were the three key characteristics of standards in top-performing countries.” Although Dr. Schmidt was not involved in writing the standards, the recommendations based on the early TIMSS research played a major role in shaping the CCSS in mathematics. I asked Dr. Schmidt to comment on the development of the three key principles in relation to the CCSS in mathematics.

“Focus,” explained Dr. Schmidt, “means you covered a smaller number of topics at each grade level, deeply instead of skimming over it and trying to do a lot of topics. Rigor has to do with the fact that by middle school if you progressed logically, you should be doing algebra and geometry, not arithmetic, which is what we [the U.S.] had been doing. That’s seventh and eighth grade, except for the elite kids, who got to have algebra. So that was rigor. But the last one, which I save for last because it’s probably the most important, was coherence.”

“Coherence,” continued Dr. Schmidt, “simply means math is hierarchically structured; certain topics cannot be learned before other topics are learned. This is just mathematics. So that coherence is absolutely critical. We found in the United States, where we had no national standards, we just had state standards, most of them were incoherent. We taught everything, everywhere, which made no sense. And so when you do everything everywhere, you have a lack of focus, and you don’t go anywhere because you keep repeating things that you never learned in the first place, so you don’t get much rigor either. And that was the character of the U.S. curriculum.”

“They [the writers of the CCSS in mathematics],” concluded Dr. Schmidt, “picked up on those three principles. In fact if you read a Common Core document you will see coherence, focus and rigor is how they characterize those standards.”

Are Teachers Ready?

Moving forward, one of the most serious issues will be preparing future teachers to implement the CCSS in mathematics. Dr. Schmidt has spoken out on this issue in the past and is currently engaged in research, including the Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) to inform this process.

Other sources indicate teachers are worried about being prepared to teach to the Core. The 2013 annual Metlife survey of school personnel, for example, found that 59% of teachers and 67% of principals thought implementing the CCSS would be either “very challenging” or “challenging.” On a positive note, most principals (90%) and teachers (93%) also believed that teachers in their school have the academic abilities and skills to teach the CCSS. Still, there is no doubt that there is a long way to go when it comes to meeting the instructional demands of the CCSS in mathematics.


*Dr. Schmidt and I discussed teacher preparation and other matters related to the CCSS, such as emerging markets for CCSS-aligned textbooks and resources. More from my interview with Dr. Schmidt will be featured in upcoming blogs.



Dr. William Schmidt is a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center. He holds faculty appointments in measurement and quantitative methods and the Department of Statistics. His current writing and research concerns issues of academic content in K- 12 schooling, teacher preparation and the effects of curriculum on academic achievement. He is also concerned with educational policy related to mathematics, science and testing in general. He is a member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).