The Support of Others

It is amazingly empowering to have the support of a strong, motivated, and inspirational group of people. – Susan Jeffers, author

One thing that was both encouraging and discouraging to me when I was teaching was the support or lack of support for students to learn math. With just a few encouraging words, teachers, mentors, counselors, administrators, friends, and parents can inspire and promote a love of (or at least interest in) mathematics in a young person. A few discouraging words can have an equal, if not greater, effect in the opposite direction.

We had a guidance counselor at the high school where I last taught who was notorious for telling students that it was OK if they weren’t good at math, because she wasn’t either. This leads, in some cases, to apathy and a general dislike of mathematics. I was reminded of this today when I read an advice column. In part, the mother writes, “I told her that, like most women, I wasn’t good in math so if she got a D, that was OK.”

What was the first piece of advice for this mother? “Shift your attitude.” I think there is a need for a general attitude shift about mathematics for all stakeholders. If you are involved in the education of children, please use encouraging words that support, rather than tear down, a child’s confidence in their own ability to do mathematics. It’s just one more thing we can all do to make mathematics better for everyone.

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Purposeful Assessment

Like changing for the sake of change, assessing for the sake of assessing has some major downsides. Meaningful assessment can take many forms (try a search for meaningful assessment), but it should always have one outcome: improved opportunity to for students to learn.

This from a recent post on the Rational Mathematics Education blog: “Creating ANY good test item is challenging, but creating test items that actually tell us what we need to know to improve teaching, learning, and parenting when it comes to academic subjects is a major challenge.”

Ask Kermit. It’s not easy being green. And it’s not easy to write a good assessment that gives meaningful data.

Raising the Bar; or, Change for the Sake of Change

I picked up this bit of news out of Delaware. The state should be applauded for their efforts to raise the bar on student achievement. However, it doesn’t seem like they’re looking forward to scores increasing at all. They have assumed that raising the expectations on the test will result in an increase in the number of students that do not pass the test.

Change for the sake of change is not really responsible, yet we do it all the time. An increase in student achievement won’t come from changing a test or adopting a new textbook. Change comes when we design and implement a meaningful curriculum based on student needs.

Factors for Student Achievement

I saw a nice article (from the March 23, 2010 Hechinger Report) that is ultimately about factors that impact student achievement in math. after noting that “Among the top-performing countries, no pattern in pedagogy emerges. There is, in fact, wide variety in mathematics teaching practices worldwide,” the report goes on to identify three issues that impact student achievement in math.

First, curriculum. This is a symptom of well-intentioned standards that make teachers and administrators feel lie they have to teach everything, every year, or the kids just won’t learn. Included in the article is this table, comparing grade 3 assessments:

Assuming (safely) that the assessment is reflective of the intended curriculum, it is easy to see why curriculum plays a role in student learning.

Second, assessment. Not the summative assessments that are still so prevalent in classrooms, or the faux-formative assessments that teachers (including me) use to help them feel better about themselves. It’s about real, ongoing, meaningful contextual assessment that informs instruction and helps all kids learn. The article specifically points to the overuse of multiple-choice assessments, popular because they are easy to score but notoriously bad at providing information about the process students use to solve the problem.

Third, teachers. This part of the article took me back an earlier post that addressed some of the problems with the way we do business. The report notes that, “It’s no secret that American elementary and middle school teachers often have weak math skills,” and then goes on to cite Deborah Ball’s comment: “This is to be expected because most teachers – like most other adults in this country – are graduates of the very system that we seek to improve.”

Improving math education for all students remains a work in progress. When we realize that these factors, among others, are all part of the big picture, then we can begin to work toward the improvement we need.