kitchen table math, the sequel: questions and answers from Niki Hayes

Saturday, June 2, 2007

questions and answers from Niki Hayes

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS on Reformist Math and Its Students … the Disadvantaged ~ Boys ~ the Gifted ~ Special Needs and ELL…
And On Politics & Power ~ And How to Convert a Non-Believer

By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

(These answers are based on generalities, which are used to reflect patterns. There are always exceptions to generalities, but patterns do allow us to offer predictions about outcomes. I now avoid using the term "progressive" because I don't find the results of reformists' math to be "progressive.")

Q: Why is the achievement gap growing?

A: Disadvantaged students of all colors live in environments that require survival on a day-to-day basis. Survival in poverty is concrete, whereas survival in school and work is usually abstract. Mental models must be built with basic strategies to teach organizational skills as well as concepts of abstraction—such as issues of time, space, appropriate language according to its setting, and part-to-whole relationships (cause and effect), according to Dr. Ruby Payne.¹

In addition, the “hidden rules” of each environment, which are the unspoken cues and habits of a group or place, should be taught directly, rather than by discovery. Students and parents in poverty usually do not know the hidden rules of the middle class, which has been the dominant view within public education.

Thinking patterns of deprived learners, whether due to economic or emotional circumstances, are considered random or “episodic” and are often based on feelings, which can result in flight or fight. Therefore, it is cultural deprivation (the lack of adult-led mediated learning experiences that connect both the what and the why of a lesson), and not cultural differences, that is a primary cause of learning deficiencies, according to Prof. Reuven Feuerstein.²

By turning mathematics learning into a discovery process, the sequential and logical thinking of the discipline is lost to learners from poverty situations. They also lose opportunities to learn planned, specific steps modeled by adults for successful outcomes.

Q: Since we know boys and girls have different learning styles, is reform math designed to teach to these differences?

A: No. The literary and discussion-based learning style of reformist education depends on verbal intelligence, which is correlated to girls’ learning styles. Group work and “processing” are also considered female learning traits.

Girls, who have been underrepresented in math and science, are expected to feel better about math with the reformist approach. This, in turn, is expected to encourage more women to enter mathematics and science fields.

Boys are goal-directed, action-oriented, and more independent learners. Sharing feelings, defending decisions, and debating details are not recognized male traits. Long appreciated for their “natural abilities” in math and science, boys are resisting the reformist approach with its emphasis on discussion and written explanations.

Literary-oriented teachers, predominantly female, who admit disliking math (and being weak in math skills), feel more comfortable teaching reform mathematics. It is subjective with more interpretations allowed for answers. However, it is more difficult to teach reform mathematics effectively, according to education leaders, themselves, in the field.

Q: How is reform mathematics education working with English language learners (ELL)?

A: ELL students are unable to participate fully in the English literary-based lessons of reform math. Computation, with which ELL students can often be successful (since skills of math and music are international languages), is ignored or denigrated in reformist math.

Q: How does reform mathematics work with learners in Special Education and those with ADHD or gifted traits?

A: Both special education and ADHD learners need specific, goal-directed instruction. Losing track of discussions or processes is a common characteristic of students in both groups. A common reminder for their teachers is to “Act; don’t yak.”

Excessive color, pictures, and graphics in books (or classrooms) create distractions and more confusion for students who already have trouble following directions or one train of thought.

Gifted students are the most likely to succeed with the “whole” learning of reform math because of their ability to work with abstraction. However, at some point they must also learn basic skills, not only of the content area, but skills on “how to learn.” Otherwise, they often become underperforming when confronted by a topic they don’t comprehend easily. They resist learning what they consider tedious skills, as do most learners, but these can ultimately provide the learned analysis of operations needed to solve problems.

Q: Should the primary functions of mathematics education be to help learners feel successful in mathematics, and to support a declared, social engineering plan to establish egalitarianism among students?

A: The purpose of mathematics is to teach respect for its historical role and its benefits in building a culture and society across all domains of life. If the curriculum is designed to comfort individuals’ feelings, rather than to prepare them for the rigor of college or a competitive job market, that should be made clear in the math materials. (This is clearly stated by Jaime Escalante.

Q: Is the failure of reform mathematics the fault of teachers, the curriculum, or both?

A: Schools of education and school districts say the fault lies with teachers’ lack of preparation in reform methods. They maintain the curriculum doesn’t matter if teachers are not prepared to teach it. There can be no argument with this statement. Yet, the claim that math curriculum isn’t important, that “books don’t teach,” is misleading at best and dishonest at worst.

There have been and always will be those who learn from classic literature and ancient math texts without the guidance of a teacher. There are also millions who study the Torah, Koran, and Bible in the privacy of their homes. Many civilizations have been based on traditional, centuries-old books. Teachers are indeed golden, but user-friendly and ageless lessons in books should be honored, not discounted.

Q : Why do teachers trained in schools of education that promote reform instruction and who have entered the field in the past 15 years need intensive professional development? Why should this teacher “remediation” be a district’s expense?

A: I don’t know. Maybe the schools of education can answer this question.

Q: Do supporters of basic skills instruction want to replace the conceptual math approach of the reform educators?

A: No. They want basic skills to be a respected partner in all mathematics curriculum, especially at the elementary level. Basic skills are not to be “supplemental” lessons, inserted only when thought necessary, but fully integrated.

Q: Why are supporters of reform mathematics so resistant to including a well-planned program of basic skills?

A: Reformists maintain they do include basic skills. Yet, their actions indicate a rigid adherence to what is perceived as “pure” reform mathematics, which dismisses the validity of learning the mechanics of basic skills. The opposition to basic skills instruction was carved in stone in the 1989 NCTM Standards, the bible of today’s reform mathematics doctrine. The 2000 NCTM Standards supposedly lightened the criticism of learning basic skills but still insists that methodology of teaching (the how or process) is paramount to the learning of content (the what or product).

Obtaining specific examples from reformists of basic skills instruction in their chosen publications is difficult. Having them show specifically why certain non-reform publications (Saxon, Singapore Math) do not support state standards is also elusive.

The newest NCTM publication, Focal Points, supposedly proposes a new focus on basic skills. They do not. They do recommend a more limited number of topics to be taught at each elementary grade level. The question of "skill content" of those topics is still untouched.

Q: What are the costs of changing or continuing the reform math programs?

A: Reform math publications, researched and published since 1991, have been supported by $83 million from the National Science Foundation and multi-millions from other governmental agencies and private resources. This has created powerful political and economic relationships (allies) among funding agencies and their recipients—education leaders, universities, and private individuals—now involved in the “education business.”

For example, changing a state's mathematics curriculum would likely mean 1) revising the state’s reform-based standards, 2) state tests that are aligned with those standards, and 3) changing schools of education in their focus on the reform approach in training teachers. Plus, 4) new professional development programs must be designed for those educators trained in the reform philosophy.

Then there’s the 5) textbook/teaching materials situation. Educational Leadership magazine reported in April 2002 that it takes $20 million to get a completely new textbook into the education system. That’s a major expenditure for profit-making companies.

Transforming reform mathematics in the U.S. will indeed be costly, but how do we compare those costs with the mistakes that created the present crisis in mathematics education? Other countries are facing the same challenges. Israel has recently piloted Singapore Math in several schools and hope to name it as their state curriculum.³ It will replace the reform math they adopted from the United States 30 years ago and which, they believe, has led to their drop from first place on the in 1964 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) to 28th in the 1999.

The U.S. has paid an exorbitant price in dollars and human capital for the last 15 years of reform mathematics. It is said the whole language movement of the 1970s and 1980s damaged a generation of learners in the basic skills of reading and writing. The same is now being said about today’s reformist “whole math.”

When 50 percent of students entering community colleges and 25-30 percent entering a public university must take remedial math, as they do now across the country, we must admit such learning deficits and remedial expenses for individuals, colleges and businesses are unacceptable. To continue operating “on faith” that progressive mathematics will eventually work —if teachers are just trained properly—is also unacceptable.

Q: What would it take to make you a believer in the NCTM-sponsored reform mathematics?

A: A preponderance of evidence showing disaggregated data from state test scores in schools where teachers have used the reformist/constructivist ideology in grades K-5, and where those students had received no tutoring in basic skills outside of the classroom. With 15 years to draw upon, there should be some evidence to present to non-believers.

¹, Dr. Ruby Payne’s training and work with children and adults from poverty
², Prof. Reuven Feuerstein’s theory on mediated learning
³ Israel’s adoption of Singapore Math

About the author: Nakonia (Niki) Hayes recently retired after working 30 years in public education as a teacher (mathematics, special education, journalism), counselor, and principal and 17 years in fields of journalism. She can be reached at


Karen A said...

This is excellent!

FYI--my 80-year-old mother is in town for our daughter's high school graduation, and she mentioned that she wasn't a particularly good speller because she was taught to read using the " whole word or sight method." She then mentioned that noone should ever have to learn that way! I must explore this more with her at some point. My guess is that her own mother provided her with remediation early on, because my mom is a college graduate, and is a very proficient reader and writer. Her mother (my grandmother) was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse before she got married, and from all accounts, she was an old-fashioned, "teach the basics" type of teacher.

LynnG said...

As regards professional development (i.e., teacher remediation), I suspect that the best explanation is a long-standing professional inferiority complex.

Other professions, such as doctors and lawyers, continue their educations with CLE, recertification, conferences, etc.

In order to be taken seriously as professionals, teacher schools feel they must also offer something similar.

Whether these courses have value is not the point.

Catherine Johnson said...

How much professional development is performed by ed schools, I wonder? Or, rather, by professors who also serve as professional developers.

Catherine Johnson said...

My mom says her sister, who was taught using the look-say method (I think that's what it was called then) has never been able to read for pleasure.

She's in her 70s.

Anonymous said...

I have heard a little about the work of Feuerstein that's mentioned here. Does anyone know if Feuerstein's work is carried out by schools or academies in the States?

Anonymous said...

Isn't look-say Dick and Jane? Or am I thinking of something else.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think look-say might be Dick and Jane, but I'm not sure... weren't the Dick and Jane books written in the 40s??

That would be a bit late for my aunt.