Nice to know we’re not alone

I came across this editorial in the Manila (Philippines) Bulletin over the weekend. Of interest to me:

First, we must address the quality problem that plagues our basic and secondary education because this system is what feeds students into the college level. Our students’ performance in Math and Science are particularly worrisome. In the Trends in International Math and Science Study or TIMSS, our performance continues to be poor: Out of 45 countries, we ranked 41st in Science, and 42nd in Math. We are behind Tunisia and Morocco, and ahead of Ghana and Botswana.

I have two general reactions to this: First, I’m glad we’re not the Philippines. Second, it’s nice to know the same discussions are going on in other places.


…And the Counterpoint

A few days ago, I posted a link and some commentary about reform math in Washington. Today, I came across this post, which is specific to Everyday Math.

The author notes that, “Reform math has dominated our schools for more than 15 years. Over this period, our international ranking has plummeted.” It seems that the article in the Seattle paper directly refuted this claim. At any rate…

The author basically degrades Everyday Math, citing several states that have banned or failed to adopt the program for various reasons. Here’s what might be my favorite paragraph:

Everyday Math has been described as a “mile wide and an inch deep.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for “more depth and less breadth” in education. States like Connecticut are heavily invested in reform programs like Everyday Math. The Hartford Courant newspaper recently reported that 40 percent of incoming college freshmen require non-credit “remedial” mathematics.

Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Show me a core basal program that isn’t. It’s a symptom of over 50 different sets of standards and a long-running debate over what students really need to know.

More Depth, Less Breadth: This should be the goal of every teacher. Figure out what your students know, what the “kinda” know, and what they don’t know, and then adjust your teaching to fit. I’m a big fan of Texas Instruments and what they are dong for education, but stories like the one I received in a TI email today send shivers up my spine: “Imagine having your whole year planned out before stepping foot in your classroom.”

Remedial Math: Only 40 percent? Seems low. Again, this is a symptom of more than the program. It’s about outdated standards, outdated teaching, and a refusal to move away from the teacher’s comfort zone.

So we’re back to the same place: It’s about instruction.

(Note that nashworld does a great job of highlighting the need for quality instruction-through his own experience-in a recent post.)

How many times do I have to tell you…

What did you expect?

Wait. I Can MAKE Kids Learn?

I came across something interesting today. I ventured (for the first time) onto Google Books to see what they had to offer. I made my way to K-12 Mathematics – no big surprise there. And I came across this:

The Equation for Excellence: How to Make Your Child Excel at Math by Arvin Vohra.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m not familiar with Arvin or this book. I’m not going to talk about the author – I’ll let you form your own opinions based on his website.

I looked at the table of contents, and Chapter 11: The Calculator Fallacy caught my eye. So I started reading. I will admit that some of the points are valid and made me stop to think, but there is a general theme of “calculators make students lazy” and “teachers are misinformed.”

Then we get to this: “A student solving a complicated problem spends very little time doing actual calculations. Most of the time is spent examining relationships and determining what concepts apply.”

Wait. Didn’t he just make the case for calculators? I used graphing calculators to help students examine relationships and link concepts. If they used the calculator to multiply six and four, so be it.

The author then supports his statement: “The student who does math by hand has these concepts ingrained in his mind, and is adept at using them.”

Again, wait. Did he just tell us how students gain conceptual knowledge? Wow. We’ve been trying to figure that out for a while, and here was the answer all along. Make them do the work by hand. (Nobody’s ever tried that one before.)

Doing math by hand does not build a solid conceptual foundation for learning. Models help students build this foundation. Rich activities that apply learning help build this foundation. Regurgitating facts and working everything out by hand do not build conceptual understanding.

Finally, this assumption: “Thus, he rapidly sees relationships between various formulas and concepts, and can quickly figure out how to do the problem.”

I can count on one hand the number of students who made connections between formulas and concepts by simply doing problems by hand. I agree with the idea that a calculator in the hands of a less effective teacher is a dangerous thing. But the author discounts the role that a calculator can play in discovering patterns and understanding relationships, and the role of an effective teacher in promoting this kind of calculator use.

Washington’s Miniature War

If you follow the ongoing saga of the “math wars” at all, you are likely familiar with the long-running debate in the state of Washington. Many school districts in Washington were early adopters of NSF-funded “reform” mathematics curricula, and much of the debate surrounding these programs has come out of Washington. (If you don’t believe me, do a search on YouTube for math.)

Even given this background, I was a bit surprised to see this guest editorial in the Seattle Times regarding discovery-based math. Of particular interest to me were the comments.

I think we’d like to believe the math wars are over. This article, and the related comments, bring us back into reality. It begs the question, “Will the math wars ever end?”

Going the Wrong Direction


Do we live in the 21st century or not?  Teachers are so reticent to embrace new technology, yet so eager to bring students back to “our generation.”

My curiousity was peaked by this column in the L. A. Times.  I’m not trying to (re)ignite the tech war here, but really?  Rather than teach kids to “follow the slower rhythms of classroom dialogue,” shouldn’t we be embracing the technological innovations available to us?

My favorite?  Students “will chronicle their experience in journals.”  It would be a shame to use a blog, wouldn’t it?


Teacher Training vs. Classroom Time: Round 1

Educators know the value of quality professional development.  Teachers left to rely on the skills and strategies acquired during a four- or five-year undergraduate program are ill-prepared to help students master key concepts (in math, reading, or any other subject).  That is why we subject ourselves to continued learning.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.  However, quality professional development is critical to changing the way we do business.

Other countries get this.  Teachers spend significant time in professional development and lesson study activities.  This is one factor contributing to the success of the primary Singapore mathematics program.  Some districts in the U. S. get this, too.  But then we get news like this.

There are two underlying factors in this situation:

  1. Parents – 100 (or more) of them signed a petition.  Their main (although unstated) concern: My kids aren’t in school and so I have to pay for daycare for an extra three hours every Wednesday.  This is indicative of our culture.  I’m not going to say more about that now.
  2. Teacher organizations.  My favorite quote on this topic from the article: “The kids need to be in school….  If they needed to do the meetings, the teachers should be paid to go to the meetings after school, you know, not take it out of time for the kids.”  This is really about pay, not what’s best for kids.  It’s an unfortunate pattern that emerges in district after district.

Unfortunately, the winner of Round 1 in Laramie County is classroom time – time that could be more productive if teachers were able to participate in training on a regular basis.