kitchen table math, the sequel: TRAILBLAZERS story

Sunday, May 20, 2007


from a ktm regular:

.... my friend was concerned that her son didn't know his times tables and even less (obviously) his division facts by the end of 5th grade. This boy made straight A's in math (2 years of Trailblazers). She asked me if I would work with him and see what was going on. I was going to give him the Saxon Placement test, but I decide just to see what would happen with Mad Minute. Well, he got around 50% of the times tables and he struggled with the 50% that he got right. The division facts were a disaster.

I asked him about fractions and while he told me that he was comfortable with some of the operations, he turned out to be very shaky on pretty much everything to do with fractions and had no knowledge of division of fractions or what a reciprocal was. I didn't even look into adding and subtracting with uncommon denominators since the multiplication and division facts weren't there. How would he quickly get equivalent fractions?

Then, I decided to do a Saxon trick and asked him to write three ways to write a division problem. He looked a little freaked out, but figured out what I was getting at. He did the division box and then a horizontal one. I asked him if he could think of another way to write it and he said no. I wrote a fraction and asked him if he realized that he could divide a fraction. He said no and that he had never seen that before (Thank God Trailblazers covers all of that conceptual knowledge.)

I took a little time and showed him some easy long division, but it was difficult because he just didn't have enough math facts learned even for the easy ones. It was a struggle from the time I came through the door so I cut the session much shorter than I had planned.

If this had been a C/D student, I probably wouldn't have been surprised, but remember, this was a top student who did all of his homework (Mom is a checker) and received all A's, according to Mom.

If that's what the "A" student looks like at the end of 5th grade, what does the "C" student look like?

So.... here in Irvington our first wave of Math TRAILBLAZERS kids will be hitting the middle school next fall.

These kids were the guinea pigs.* Each year that they had TRAILBLAZERS was the first year the teacher was teaching it, because the curriculum was "implemented" (how I loathe that word!) in stages.

The middle school principal tried to get rid of the Phase 4 class, and would have gotten rid of it but for a particularly determined parent who managed to stave off the move. There may have been more than one parent working on this, but one that I know of for certain.

I wasn't involved, though I was lobbing lots of Yahoo op eds from the sidelines, obviously.

Actually, our discovery that there is a teeming horde of enraged K-5 grade parents heading middle school way was a turning point in our own political relationship with the district. I had been thinking, Boy. I'm out on a limb here, writing all this stuff about the district.


Once I realized how widespread -- and how frequently voiced -- the dissatisfaction is in K-5, I stopped worrying.

Not that I was spending a lot of time worrying.

* Guinea pigs was the expression used by one of their moms.


Anonymous said...

A parent in our town called the local Kumon director to ask her opinion about the math program in our district. (We use Everyday Math). She said that she sees kids who get A's on their report cards who are not fluent with arithmetic.

The minority who send their kids to Kumon are aware of the problems with EM, but most parents are not. Their kids are getting good grades and doing fine on state standardized tests. Our state misleads parents by telling them their children are "proficient" in math when the kids are not fluent in arithmetic. That leads to apathy.

LynnG said...

Catherine, how did you find out about the enraged hordes? Most parents that I've talked to around here have "misgivings" and "uneasiness" with EM, but aren't to the point of outrage.

I think.

We do not have a parents forum.

How do you find those unhappy enough to want to do something about it?

Maybe it just hasn't been long enough. Our guinea pig class is the current 5th grade (my daughter's class). We haven't had EM trained kids hit MS algebra. And Connecticut doesn't have a Regents exam to let us know we've fallen off the track.

How do I find the enraged mob if they exist?

Catherine Johnson said...

Good question.

We found out because one of the MOST enraged of the younger parents held a coffee at her house for the new assistant superintendent of curriculum.

Ed went and was stunned. The parents were scathing in their comments on the district. There were only 1 or 2 who were positive.

Later on Ed and another dad held a small gathering (I wasn't invited) at which a mom who serves on many committees said that the board gets 100 unhappy emails a week.

So... that was pretty much enough for me to go on.

Catherine Johnson said...

I do have one "clue," which is that parents in K-5 can be more activist because they see each other more.

My sister says this is why schools slam the gates shut as soon as they possibly can; they don't want the parents talking to each other & comparing notes.

Catherine Johnson said...

The forum has been fairly important, I would say.... but it's impossible to say how important.

I know for a fact that the posts i've written have provided the intellectual framework - and ammunition - for some extremely articulate parents who don't have the time to piece all this together. I've practically done nothing but immerse myself in education for 3 years now, which is what it takes to make your way through all this stuff.

One parent (VERY highly educated) told me that she essentially trusts anything I report about the history, theory, policy, etc. This is a unique attitude for her, but she's right to take it because I've been incredibly careful in trying to understand the education world. (I'm too exposed to get things wrong; I have to fact-check myself.)

So...I wonder whether you should consider doing something like what I'm doing ---- only not as "inflammatory" (!)

OR: how about an anonymous website??

Have you looked at Vormath???

Catherine Johnson said...

Putting out information is the way to go.

In my case, I've opted to write op eds about Irvington schools, which is the nuttiest thing I could possibly have done -- but after two years of blog writing, I was the man-for-the-job !

But op eddery about one's own school district is high-risk; I think the same things could be achieved simply by putting out information.

Do it anonymously; source everything.

It could work.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi anonymous

Apathy is fine.... you only need a handful of worked-up parents.

Also, the worked-up parents, as they get louder, tend to work up the other parents....

Tex said...

Catherine, you have been a great example for me to remember the importance of fact checking. I consider my strongest defense against those who would decry my speaking out against our school as non-supportive negative rantings is that I am sharing factual information. Or, at least trying to. Sometimes I make mistakes.

You could say you’ve adopted the Fox News slogan of “We report, you decide” for your math advocacy.

(Hmm, didn’t mean to imply any other association with Fox News. Just the slogan.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Hmm, didn’t mean to imply any other association with Fox News. Just the slogan.


Well.... I worry about my "advice" after having led LM astray....

Being negative is tricky, and that's putting it mildly. People love their schools, or want to -- when some mom comes along and starts criticizing things the happiness quotient doesn't increase.

I think another key is to stay cheerful and be as humorous as possible if that works with your personality/writing style, etc.

Barry G. kids me about being "Sandra Bullock," which I love, of course, because a) she's great looking, b) she's great looking and c) he's right on the character part; I have a similar goofy, enthusiastic, yellow-Lab quality.

Sort of a yellow Lab with a Ph.D. thing...

Catherine Johnson said...

We should really put together a list of things that seem to work.

Fact-checking the living daylights out of yourself is key.

Providing information is key.

AND: "providing information" includes putting out other people's opinions.

In other words, instead of constantly giving people your own opinion, you can say: "Here is Diane Ravitch's opinion."

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm starting to do "big picture" writing, too -- partly because I finally figured it out thanks to one of the people on Linda Moran's list (and to the constructivist beliefs study).

When you talk about "constructivism" as a reform movement that is sweeping the country -- a generational reform movement, no less -- that stops sounding so negative and starts sounding like everybody's cheese is getting moved.

Which it is.

Catherine Johnson said...

One thing I haven't done, which people have told me they wish I would, is to be positive about the school.

I haven't tried to balance my criticisms with positives.

I don't know whether I should try to do this, and the main reason I haven't is that I was getting the feeling early on that this was being received by teachers as a form of divide and conquer --- and as condescending.

It's bad enough that I set myself up as the School Critic.

But then to be the School Dispenser of Praise might be even worse.

Basically I haven't been able to feel my way through the question of how to say good things in the context of a critical project....

SteveH said...

I don't suspect that the publishers of TRAILBLAZERS would ever admit that their curriculum allows kids to get to fifth grade without knowing the times table. The same is true for Everyday Math, but this happened in my son's school. The common excuse is that everything would be fine only if the teachers would follow the program and use the supplements. I've heard this from EM supporters. Then they say that what they need is more teacher training. (However, the problem with the old traditional math wasn't teacher training, but the curriculum itself. Apparently, they could tell the difference.)

This is the old issue of finding the ONE problem that has to be solved. The IF ONLY proposition. "If only we had better-trained teachers". "If only we had involved parents." If only we had more money." "If only we could eliminate poverty."

There are many issues and solving one won't solve them all. I can imagine a school that uses Saxon Math having students in fifth grade who don't know the times table. I would wager that it would be a lot less than Trailblazers, but I could also see a Trailblazers school where kids have mastery of the basics. It could happen, I suppose. It's not good to focus on things like the times table and basic algorithms. The real difference in math curricula can be seen in 6th and 7th grades. These differences are not as easily deniable as mastery of the times table.

Now that many of these curricula have (or will) come out with revisions that emphasize the basice more, there is much more room for plausible denial. My son's school seems to be in the process of rehabilitating Everyday Math. "It's not the curriculum; it's the teacher training." Never mind that they have been told to look at Saxon, Singapore, and Sadlier-Oxford "Progress in Mathematics", Everyday Math walks the walk and talks the talk they like to hear. They are biased (uncomfortable with?) against more rigor and mastery in math.

The curriculum advisor at my son's school talks about kids who have been through years of Everyday Math and still struggle (compared with other kids). She says that some kids are just going to have difficulty with math and that their difficulty can't be blamed on Everyday Math. They see some kids doing quite well, so the problem can't be the curriculum.

Even if a panel defines a proper course in algebra for 8th grade, many schools and teachers don't expect that much from kids. On Ken's blog, one rabid EM supporter said something to the effect: "have you see any 8th graders lately?" to imply that it is completely unreasonable to expect these kids to deal with algebra. Of course, Everyday Math does a poor job preparing kids for algebra by 9th grade.

SteveH said...

"One thing I haven't done, which people have told me they wish I would, is to be positive about the school."

What we need with criticism is "balance". "The school looks fabulous, but you're ruining the kids with your horrible curriculum."

The "balance" argument in this case is just like the use of helicopter parents. It is designed to diminish your arguments. Then again, the problem is not so much balance as it is focus. Complaining about a few key issues, with suggestions for improvement, is much more effective than raising all sorts of issues.

I have tried to focus on changing math at my son's school (with little effect, I might say). I raise other issues, but they all revolve around one idea: more content and mastery with effective teaching. I try to put myself in their position and give them ways to achieve this goal. Of course, most of this has to do with basic assumptions so they smile and do what they want.

PaulaV said...

"The minority who send their kids to Kumon are aware of the problems with EM, but most parents are not."

Exactly. I have yet to see any of my son's school mates at Kumon. I talked to one parent whose son goes to another school in our district, and she said she was unhappy with the way math was being taught in the county. I get the feeling and I could be wrong, but it seems most of the white kids are there for remediation and the Asians are there for acceleration. I know this is not very PC, but that is the way it looks.

What I have found by talking with other parents at my son's school is that as long as those test scores remain high then no one is going out on a limb to complain.

However, I know there is concern among some of us. Those of us who volunteer in the classroom see the vast learning gaps among the children. This is often blamed on parents not doing enough at home.

Also from what I can tell by doing research on my district, is that TERC is being piloted, but the BOE has been very quite about it. It is almost as though they are trying to "slip it in through the back door" as one website put it. Some of the schools use TERC investigations as their curriculum and some don't, while some use TERC and supplement with traditional worksheets. It is my feeling that my school falls into the latter category.

In the meantime, I am reading and gathering information. It is truly wonderful what you can learn on the internet!

Catherine Johnson said...

Complaining about a few key issues, with suggestions for improvement, is much more effective than raising all sorts of issues.

I am now focusing on constructivism per se.

The district opened the door (will post).

So: I'm going after constructivism.

That takes in a lot of territory.