kitchen table math, the sequel: math insurgency

Thursday, January 25, 2007

math insurgency

A few days ago I had posted on a group called "Wheres The Math? " that was responsible for the now infamous Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth video.

The groups purpose was to force reform of Washington State's math standards and to advocate against "fuzzy math".

It appears they have had at least a small victory:

Seattle Times: Bergeson OKs independent math review

Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson has agreed to an independent review of state math standards that critics have called at least partly responsible for Washington students' poor math achievement.
...
Mukilteo parent Hugh Taylor, a member of the state "Where's the Math?" group, called U.S. math instruction "uniquely unsuccessful." He said that since the state developed the original math standards, allowing the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to conduct the standards review "would be like the fox guarding the henhouse."

He said he welcomed an independent review, "as long as it's conducted by a mathematician."
As Catherine alluded to earlier, a parent revolution is difficult to pull off, but with a little persistence it seems it is possible to make headway.

Now changing math standards will not by itself eliminate weak math curricula, but by raising the standards it will at least add little pressure.

I suspect that it's a lot easier for well connected middle class parents to force changes than the parents of disadvantaged kids. This is unfortunate because its middle class parents who are more likely to supplement the less that satisfactory math programs in school. Their kids are more likely to pass, despite the weakness' of schools, and cover up the inherent problems.

It's very unlikely there will ever be a mass national uprising, but hopefully all the disjointed successes that happen here and there in the country, inspire other small groups of concerned parents to take on the schools.

I think that the term "Math Wars" might not be appropriate. Instead to borrow a phrase from the Iraq War, as loaded as it is. What we have is a "Math Insurgency".

23 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

I think there are places where "math war" is probably the correct term, e.g. the state of California.

But within most districts it's more like an insurgency.

That's the way I "theorize" what's happening in my own district. (That's why I mentioned learning about the history of insurgent wars, which Ed knows fairly well.)

We have a lot of the hallmarks of a nonviolent insurgency here, among them hugely assymetrical forces. The administration has all the power; we have none of the power. That's pretty assymetrical.

We also have, I'm coming to understand better than I did, a profound need for secrecy. Parents here and elsewhere are afraid. People tell me this frequently. They're afraid of reprisals.

I had been operating under the principal that using my own name and saying what I think publicly would spark others to do the same. I don't know if everyone here remembers the fact that another parent told me:

"The district will crush you"

and

"The district will hurt your child"

My thought was that simply not being crushed - being visibly un-crushed as it were - would be an effective act.

I think it is effective in its way; the fact that I'm still here encourages other parents to step up their own private complaints. (I think.)

But it's not enough.

We may need to set up a private listserv. That's what I'm thinking at the moment.

I was asking Ed about insurgencies.

He said they always use cels in which no more than 3 people know who the other person is.

To some degree I've done that instinctively; no one knows who might be sympathetic and/or working with Ed and me.

No one knows who helped me set up the listserv. (I didn't do it alone.)

Then he said insurgencies have to be willing to take a lot of casualties.

hoho
____________

btw, you were completely right about MJ McDermott being part of Where's the Math. I checked.

She is actively involved with Where's the Math.

They're a great bunch.

No idea where I got the impression she had done the video on her own (unless she did do it on her own, as opposed to in concert with a formal Where's the Math planned production, which is entirely possible. I may have misunderstood whatever news source I saw.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I wish I knew more history; I wish I knew political theory better.

When I take a step back I find the whole thing fascinating.

Parents don't want these programs.

I've been keeping my eyes open for data on how many parents would choose these programs freely; I think it's around 30%.

A 70% majority is huge. It's beyond landslide; it's a consensus. (I believe the 70% mark is defined as "consensus" in voting, but don't quote me.)

So we've got (probably) 70% of parents rejecting these programs and yet we have these programs.

Administrations ram them through. Compliant school boards go along.

It's bizarre.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm sure if I knew more history & poli sci I would see that it's not bizarre.....

But I sure don't understand it.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of the messages I hope to get across to our own School Board & to boards elsewhere is that there is no free lunch.

Yes, an administration and board have absolute power.

BUT they don't have absolute legitimacy, and without legitimacy power falters.

It's important for school boards and administrators to understand that when they force programs on parents who don't want them there is a cost.

Do they want to pay it?

Do they want bonds for athletic fields to be endangered by Math TRAILBLAZERS?

I suspect that once administrations and boards understand that they are inviting trouble - they are asking for trouble - bringing these things in, their enthusiasm will dim.

Parentalcation said...

I call it an insurgency (on a national level) because its in reality a lot of little wars (or skirmishes).

Besides... "Math Wars" is so 1990's

:)

On McDermott, I am the master of googling... when I saw the video I thought it was just a bit too professional to be the work of just one woman.

It's still an awesome piece of propoganda in the Math Insurgency

Catherine Johnson said...

Besides... "Math Wars" is so 1990's

lol

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed says one of the key principles for any succcessful insurgency is to capture the media.

Apparently in the Algerian war the French absolutely won the war militarily.

The insurgents won in the media and that was that.

The insurgents won.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm going to be constantly pressing the issue of parent empowerment (don't have a particularly good phrase for this at the moment - though Parent Empowerment might do).

We had our meeting with the principal to ask that Christopher be moved to Phase 3 for the remainder of the year, then moved back to Phase 4 next year.

The principal obviously felt himself to be under no obligation whatsoever to accommodate us.

We pointed out that there's lots of (sound) research showing that giving a student a weak teacher two years in a row damages the student's learning; he clearly agreed.

He agrees that Christopher is not learning math well.

He looked at his latest test with its inflated grade of 60.

Doesn't matter.

If it can be arranged, IF the other teacher agrees to take Christopher, and IF the other teacher agrees to refer Christopher back to Phase 4 next year, then maybe.

We have ZERO rights. Zero. None at all. Christopher has less-than-zero right to be taught math.

I say less-than-zero because arguably his knowledge of math is actually being degraded in this class.

None of that matters; it isn't even upsetting to the principal.

He's a nice guy; he wants kids to learn.

But the power of his teachers, the district, and the system are, for him, absolute.

dweir said...

"The district will crush you"
"The district will hurt your child"


It is necessary for parents to get over this fear. First, if parents do not speak up, then school boards can hardly be accused of not listening. If the politics of your system are structured so that parental rights are squashed, you need to address this politically. Get board members elected who will change policy (or enforce existing ones) that will lead to a more customer focused department.

Second, that sort of thinking leads to a communication shutdown. The parent's objective is for their child to do as well as possible. The district's objective is for all students to do as well as possible. Barring any other directive, the district focuses on meeting state-set standards, so this objective is really "ensure all children meet minimum standards". I don't think it's the case that educators don't care whether a student does "excellent" as opposed to "average", rather that the district performance isn't measured by that standard.

Imagine that the district adopted the curriculum of your choice and that resulted in a shift of the performance issues to other students. The "district" still has a problem, even though yours is solved. So, the "math wars" or "insurgency" can continue to flip-flop among parents whose children's needs aren't being met. Or, both the district and the parents can bring out the white flag and work together.

My hunch is that this will bring the discussions away from EM vs. Singapore and down to more fundamental issues:

- elementary teachers as subject generalists vs. specialists
- heterogenous ability grouping
- state curriculum standards
- teacher choice of methods based on student performance
- parent choice of teacher based on student performance
- social promotion and the whole division by grade rather than skill in K-8
- measurements of success for district and for the individual
- student's right to work to full potential
- student's responsibility for performance

And the list goes on...

This isn't just a "math" issue. We've seen it with reading, and I'm sure we'll see it in other areas, too.

Catherine Johnson said...

t is necessary for parents to get over this fear. First, if parents do not speak up, then school boards can hardly be accused of not listening. If the politics of your system are structured so that parental rights are squashed, you need

One problem is that in fact parents don't have any rights.

We talked to an attorney about this.

The strongest form of this statement isn't true; parents have the right to see their children's records and they have some kind of right to privacy (that may be the student's right - not sure).

But that's it.

Regular-ed students have no right - none - to learn content at school.

Catherine Johnson said...

Imagine that the district adopted the curriculum of your choice and that resulted in a shift of the performance issues to other students

Actually I've moved beyond math.

My issue is the school, period.

Our school (all schools, essentially) does not take responsibility for individual student learning, period.

Individual teachers may do so.

They are not supported in this by the District.

Catherine Johnson said...

We had our "meeting with the principal" this week (this was a public event hosted by the PTSA.)

This is the first year they've offered Earth Sciences to 48 kids in the 8th grade (selection process closed, secret, and almost certainly arbitrary to some degree).

Pelham offers Earth Sciences to all of its 8th graders; 94 to 98% pass Regents.

The principal reported that a number of students are "struggling" in the class.

Thus they "don't belong" in the class.

The teacher is new, young, untenured.

But the problem is the kids.

This is the core issue for me at this point.

Well, that and the fact that it's January and the 7th graders have read only one book so far.

That book being The Outsiders.

Catherine Johnson said...

This isn't just a "math" issue. We've seen it with reading, and I'm sure we'll see it in other areas, too.

Absolutely.

As I say, I've "moved beyond" math.

As an accident of circumstance, math is the primary subject of ktm, but not the only one.

I haven't even begun to post about the Darwinian gatekeeping going on here in Irvington.

Catherine Johnson said...

Parents aren't going to get over this fear any time soon, so we have to work around it.

The other problem is that very few parents feel that it's the school's fault if kids don't learn.

During the meeting with the principal I complained about character ed.

I asked how we were measuring whether character ed was having any effect on character.

The other parents uniformly rejected the idea that a character ed program should be evaluated for effectiveness in any way.

One dad said, "Character takes a long time to form; this is a long-term program. You wouldn't expect every child to be learning math."

HE SAID THAT!

YOU WOULDN'T EXPECT EVERY CHILD TO BE LEARNING MATH!

I said, "That's exactly what I expect. I expect every child to be learning math."

The dad fixed me with a look and said significantly, "Maybe that's the problem."

The next day a parent told me I was strident (she was right).

I have to get a grip.

SteveH said...

"The district will crush you"
"The district will hurt your child"

"It is necessary for parents to get over this fear."

Yes, parents are always the problem. You really have to go beyond the superficial to understand the real issues brought up at KTM.

Schools try to manage parental response. There is no free and open dialog. I've referred to some of it as preemptive attacks. We've also talked about Math Nights". This has nothing to do with getting parental input or communication. It has to do with managing parents. It has to do with telling parents the way it is.

In theory. an elected school committee could force changes in school curricula and teaching methods, but it's not that simple. How do you get a school to do something that it really doesn't want to do. Schools really fight town input on curricula and teaching methods. School committees end up dealing only with money and minor policy issues. Our school committee has a sub-group that is looking into healthy lunches.

I found that teachers make it very clear from the start that they don't like "those" parents. My wife and I started getting the stories when our son entered Kindergarten. The main point of these stories is to be a warning. Butt out. They are the experts - not you. It's not blatant, but parents don't dream it up.

Retaliation? Well, I know many parents who keep their mouths shut because you can't fight city hall and they don't want to create problems for their kids. I remember hearing some teachers talking about one child whose parents wanted him to be challenged more at school. They said he wasn't that smart. I was surprised that they said it while I was standing right there.

The basic atmosphere in most schools is that they are in charge. You aren't.

"Second, that sort of thinking leads to a communication shutdown."

What communication!?! The one where the parent asks for better curricula and teaching methods? There wasn't any communication there before. Parents want more than the smile, head nod, and do nothing type of communication.


"... rather that the district performance isn't measured by that standard."

So it's OK that schools only put in the minimum effort or ignore a large population of students?


"So, the "math wars" or "insurgency" can continue to flip-flop among parents whose children's needs aren't being met. Or, both the district and the parents can bring out the white flag and work together."

Incredible. This is not a zero-sum proposition. It has to do with good versus bad curricula for ALL students. Work together? HOW? There is no process. Schools do NOT want a process. They want to do what they want to do. I've heard this comment before. I've been in parent-teacher meetings where the teachers finally (!) allow that there is a need for some sort of "balance". Of course, they get to define what balance means and get to define all of the details. "Thank you for your input. Goodbye." I don't call this working together. I don't call it communication. The ONLY reason that schools allow any sort of working together is when parents or groups like KTM make a VERY BIG STINK. It doesn't always work because we are just a bunch of "those" parents who care only about our own kids. If that were the case then I would save a whole lot of my life blogging about bad math curricula. I could help my son be so very far ahead of all of the other kids. By the way, this attitude really bugs me - that we parents only care about our own kids.


"My hunch is that this will bring the discussions away from EM vs. Singapore and down to more fundamental issues:"

WHAT DISCUSSIONS???????

Where? When? You're kidding, right?

When do parents get ANY sort of input into fundamental assumptions and educational philosophy? The only time this happens is when it's tightly controlled (facilitated) by the school to put together a strategic document that sounds nice but is completely meaningless.

There is no process.

There is no communication.

Schools do not want this.

If schools are forced, they control the process very carefully. The message to parents is very clear.


By the way, discussions of EM vs. Singapore IS fundamental. This is EXACTLY what it's all about. Why talk in generalities when we have a specific example right in front of our face.

I want communication.

When does it start?

Catherine Johnson said...

Schools try to manage parental response. There is no free and open dialog. I've referred to some of it as preemptive attacks.

It really is extraordinary.

Catherine Johnson said...

In theory. an elected school committee could force changes in school curricula and teaching methods, but it's not that simple. How do you get a school to do something that it really doesn't want to do.

well....that's my assumption.

For some reason we've gotten ourselves politically engaged (I'm sure it has to do with having "come up" through special ed).

But I think the odds of making any real changes are slim - and God only knows what the odds are of making things worse.

I still haven't gotten around to posting anything much about the Princeton Charter School.

The dissident parents in that case took over the school board and a blood bath followed. Just reading about their experiences is draining, and they had a happy ending.

I could easily see pushing through some species of open enrollment for Honors courses and having that instantly become watered-down curriculum for all.

Almost a slam-dunk.

Catherine Johnson said...

Actually, that's something I'm going to need advice on.

The Honors selection process is going to become an issue here....I'd say we've reached the point of no return on that one.

I'll write some posts about it so you all know what the issues are. In a nutshell:

* we strictly ration Honors courses
* selection process is opaque, secret, and almost certainly arbitrary in many ways
* selection process is widely seen as "political" (i.e. slots for "bubble kids" go to favored parents)
* Honors courses are the only courses that prepare kids to take SAT II tests - when parents of rejected kids ask "What happens if my child wants to take an SAT II subject test" the school's reply is "Why would he want to do that?"

For those of you who've been reading ktm for awhile, the Honors selection process seems to be a repeat of the experience we had in 3rd grade when Christopher was authoritatively tracked out of calculus in high school.

The opaque Honors selection process authoritatively tracks students out of taking SAT II subject tests.

And that pretty much covers it!

This should have been my post.

Catherine Johnson said...

The middle school is moving to make the selection process for Earth Science objective and (more) transparent.

I suspect that once this precedent is set the high school will feel pressured to follow suit.

The complicating factor is that it is now blindingly apparent that the school responds to all problems students have by bumping them down to easier courses.

IF you allow the riff-raff to take Honors courses ABD the school carries on following its longstanding practice of blaming-the-child, their only solution will be to make the Honors courses easier.

Or I suppose they could simply set a GPA Honors kids would have to maintain and then bust them down out of the track when they don't maintain it.

We need Siegfried Engelmann.

Catherine Johnson said...

I found that teachers make it very clear from the start that they don't like "those" parents. My wife and I started getting the stories when our son entered Kindergarten. The main point of these stories is to be a warning. Butt out. They are the experts - not you. It's not blatant, but parents don't dream it up.

Retaliation? Well, I know many parents who keep their mouths shut because you can't fight city hall and they don't want to create problems for their kids. I remember hearing some teachers talking about one child whose parents wanted him to be challenged more at school. They said he wasn't that smart. I was surprised that they said it while I was standing right there.


Interesting.

This makes me think that the "class war" between school and parents we have here has its benefits.

Believe it or not, I've seen very little distinction made between "good parents" and "bad parents."

The math chair is mad as heck at "math dad," but she's mad as heck at Ed and me, too, and when you get her going she's darn mad at the whole lot of us.

I've also never heard a teacher complain that a kid whose parent has pushed him into (to pull a random example out of the air) accelerated math just isn't that smart.....I've heard many, many times that children of "pushy parents" "don't belong" -- but there's never a particular child who doesn't belong. The complaint is always about a generic child of a generic pushy parent.

Behind the scenes I'm sure there's some ferocious gossip going on, just as there is amongst parents.

But in mixed company you aren't given the sense that "pushy parents" per se are in the doghouse.

Catherine Johnson said...

We've definitely found that "nice" doesn't work. Not even close.

Nice parents are thanked for their input.

It's looking like the defeat of the bond proposal shaken things up.

We'll see.

When I was on the board of NAAR I found that playing politics well (which I didn't) means being able to shift between "talk" and "fight."

Putting out a white flag NEVER works unless you've caused so much damage the other side is ready to come to the table, or at least acknowledge that there is, or could be, a table.

I eventually formulated it this way: you have to do good cop/bad cop yourself.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll add that I think Ed has always been far more effective than I AND that he doesn't particularly do "good cop/bad cop."

However, I'm not sure a "mere mom" can duplicate his style.

At least, I can't, and it's not that I can't emulate the style when I put my mind to it.

I've had to throw some bombs to get people's attention.

Ed had to oppose the fields bond.

Those two actions are the exact opposite of white flags.

dweir said...

There is much I would like to respond to. But for now, a few brief comments:

I am in agreement with much of what is posted here. As a former teacher and current school board member, I was attempting to give a pragmatic answer. Check out Peyton Wolcott for words of wisdom from the trenches.