kitchen table math, the sequel: Talk Versus Reality

Friday, May 23, 2008

Talk Versus Reality

Last week my son came home and told me that a teacher asked him how to figure out percentage. The question was something like: What percentage is 18 of 156. This wasn't a math teacher. It was a teacher who was monitoring a sixth grade make-up test for Everyday Math. I guess after the test the kids were asking her how to solve it. My son (who happened to be in the room due to his odd schedule) explained it to them. I gave him an incredulous look and he said: "yup". He said that the kids don't like their regular math teacher. They just doodle in class.

Over the last 8 years, I've realized that there are two things happening in math education: talk and reality. The talk is about concepts like discovery and deep understanding. The reality is about basic competence and just getting the job done. In fifth grade, my son's Everyday Math teacher didn't get to 35 percent of the material. This wasn't carefully selected. She just stopped when the school year ended. To her credit, she did work hard to fix the basic mastery problems the kids came with. She had after-school help sessions. When I talked with her, she told me that she was not happy about how the kids got to her class in the first place, but she felt that she couldn't raise the issue. I did. It didn't seem to matter.

[I never did get a good answer to this. The best I can figure is that the school thinks the onus is on the kids and that with EM, mastery will eventually be achieved. If not, it's the student's fault. That's basically what the curriculum head told me. "If a student struggles with math for several years in a row, then you can't blame the curriculum." She also said that she liked Singapore Math, but EM was a better choice for their "mix" of kids. (private school)]

One of the problems is that Everyday Math allows this to happen on purpose. But it's more than that. Teachers and schools know that you can't put off mastery that long, but they don't all get together to fix it. I'm not talking about doing hundreds of long division problems. I'm talking about the real basics. At that school, we had a parent-teacher meeting specifically about Everyday Math. The discussion was at the "talk" level. Most focused on the need for balance and there was a lot of agreement. Almost. I wanted to talk about details, but that wasn't appropriate for the meeting. So what changed? Almost nothing. They ended up dumping EM in sixth grade and went to something that aligned more with the algebra series they used. They still didn't fix the mastery problem. I've mentioned before that even if I could get our schools to use Singapore Math, they would still allow kids to get to fifth grade not knowing their times table.

The following comments are from a recent tri-state meeting of state officials and educators to discuss bad math scores:

" ... the system and not students are to blame for low math scores ..."

"Only 22 percent of high school students achieved proficient math scores ..."

"The teachers put the test together and they're all satisfied that it's a good test..."

"Have we not got our curriculums aligned properly?" [governor]

"Educators are now trying to make sure students are actually being taught what they're being tested on."

"Another goal is to make sure all kids are given a chance to learn higher levels of math."

This has nothing do do with balance, discovery, or deep understanding. It's competence. The best they can do is to blame alignment. It's much more than that, and I'm not optimistic.


Anonymous said...

Read the Atlanta Journal articles from this week regarding our state CRCT testing. The quotes you noted "curricula alignment", etc. are all part of the discussions.
In addition, the state DOE has chosen to implement an "integrated math" curriculum (mandatory in public schools) for all students beginning 9th grade next year. We need some math-minded Education officials, rather than all liberal-arts majors or education majors defining what "math" actually is. With this generation of "integrated math" graduates, Georgia Tech will have to start lowering the number of in-state students they must accept each year.

concernedCTparent said...

This wasn't a math teacher.

I started paying attention to Everyday Math because of a substitute teacher.

We were in our first year in the district and I guess I was still a little disoriented. This substitute teacher, it turns out, was a well-respected retired fourth grade teacher. She walked into that classroom on that fated day with real expectations of learning and mastery. I believe was quite shocked at what she found instead.

The substitute was trying to have the class multiply and divide decimals. These were Everyday Math kids most of whom had only had exposure to Everyday Math from K-4. They had no clue.

My daughter had been taught to multiply and divide fractions towards the end of third grade but hadn't mastered the concept yet. Once we moved, Everyday Math never touched upon the subject without a calculator again. The teacher was expecting them to solve these equations WITHOUT a calculator for heaven's sake.

When I looked up multiplying/dividing fractions in the EM reference book I had purchased, I was shocked to find that every entry relied upon a calculator. Every single entry. That was it. It was high alert from that moment on.

It was all thanks to the substitute teacher.

Catherine Johnson said...


have i got this right?

the teacher didn't know how to do percent?

Catherine Johnson said...

"If a student struggles with math for several years in a row, then you can't blame the curriculum."

This is a quote?

Catherine Johnson said...

The best they can do is to blame alignment. It's much more than that, and I'm not optimistic.

We've made progress here simply in terms of putting responsibility for teaching to mastery onto the school instead of the parents --- rather, in terms of making that concept part of the "discourse."

Our two math teachers recently agreed to start doing formative assessment in C's class.

I suspect that this isn't going to become standard practice now, but the idea is now real.

We just keep hammering away on:

* liberal arts disciplines
* school is responsible for individual student learning

Unfortunately, nothing will change here until some other changes occur. I've learned this week that there's a serious morale problem; relationship between union & administration is so bad all negotiations are done through lawyers.

Catherine Johnson said...

rather than all liberal-arts majors or education majors defining what "math" actually is

I hope you don't mind my saying that math is a liberal art. (I bring it up because we're in a constant political struggle here to get the district to teach a coherent liberal arts curriculum.)

You're absolutely right, and I've been thinking the same thing. We have NO people who know math in high administrative positions. In fact, our administrators will openly say they don't know math at all.

My favorite moment happened several years ago when the school board president sent out an email saying math had become "language-based."

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I'm not sure what term would be technically correct for what we're talking about... you could say "humanities majors," but a degree in education isn't a humanities degree.

Liberal arts are usually divided into 4 divisions: 4 division usually: humanities, social sciences, life sciences, & physical sciences.

The humanities include the fine arts, I believe.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's the list of the liberal arts disciplines I got from Ed:

English literature
Social studies/history
Foreign languages

Catherine Johnson said...

Rhetoric is included under literature, I believe.

SteveH said...

"the teacher didn't know how to do percent?"

This wasn't the math teacher, but still. I'm trying to understand why any teacher wouldn't know how to figure percent.

SteveH said...

This is a quote?

Yes. She is a very nice woman who seemed so interested in Singapore Math. I loaned her my copies. It didn't help.

I think what she meant was that some kids do well in math, so it can't be the curriculum, and if a child doesn't do well over many years, then it can't be a problem with a teacher. That's the only way I can make sense of it.

Anonymous said...

I am math-minded (engineer), and often have a difficult time finding the right word - maybe "language-arts-minded administrators" is a better way to describe the real-math-phobia that is prevalent in the various local and state administration offices. We have plenty of principals and supers who are music majors and education majors. We even have a HS teacher with a "math" major from the local university (who is convinced "reform math" is the greatest thing since sliced bread). As a female who enjoyed math (real math -back in the 80's), I was NEVER encouraged to become a teacher by ANYONE. I cannot imagine that there are many men in my generation (with math-minds) who were encouraged to teach, either. I know I am painting with a broad brush - just a thought.

SteveH said...

Notice that alignment is used almost as an excuse. Nobody checked to see whether a high percent of the questions on the test were not taught. I'm sure that's true to some extent, but it can't explain why 22 percent of high school students can't meet a minimal cutoff target.

Anonymous said...

Here are two actual math quiz questions I had to read to a 7th grade class during the Field Day Quiz Bowl, yesterday:
Tommy will be paid $15 for mowing the neighbors yard. He owes his brother $28. How much money will Tommy have after he pays his brother?
Teacher's answer: -$13
My answer (and alot of the kids' answers): "He won't have any money."

Betty bought five bears for her baby. If her baby bit off one bear's head per day, how many days will Betty's baby have a bear?

Teacher's answer: 5
My answer: "5 days with whole bears, we do not know how many days with partial bears. Let's skip this one, kids."

Can you tell the teacher has a "language-arts" mindset? Some other teachers (who are not as adamant about Connected Math) provided the 8th and 6th grade questions, which were perfect: 78x84, 834-342, 4-1/2 x 3-2/3, finish the sequence, find the prime factorization, etc.

K9Sasha said...

As part of a lesson I was teaching in 4th and 5th grade classrooms, I asked the students this question:

A farmer has plowed 80 rows, some horizontally and some vertically. If 35 rows are vertical, how many are horizontal?

There were a few kids in each class who knew the answer, but *even they could not tell me how they got it.* It's a simple, straightforward subtraction problem, and not one kid knew how to set it up to solve it???

K9Sasha said...

Our state has recently changed requirements to add more math in high school. Adding more years of math isn't going to help anybody if the kids aren't being taught anything.

I tell my homeschooled teen that I care less about how far he gets in math than that he truly knows and understands what he has studied.

As a side note: This is a kid who wants to be an engineer and lost three years of math learning due to reform math. When I put him in a charter school he tested at pre-algebra level. When I took him out three years later he still tested at pre-algebra level. Thanks to Teaching Textbooks he was able to condense pre-algebra and algebra into one year. Since then he's used Math-U-See, and while the books aren't perfect, I do have some confidence that he's actually learning what they purport to teach.

Catherine Johnson said...

I am math-minded (engineer), and often have a difficult time finding the right word - maybe "language-arts-minded administrators" is a better way to describe the real-math-phobia that is prevalent in the various local and state administration offices.

It's nothing to do with you!

Hardly anyone even knows what the liberal arts disciplines are any more, or where they come from.

I don't know; I keep having to ask my husband.

This is how knowledge dies.

Trample on it and refuse to teach it for long enough & it goes extinct.

Catherine Johnson said...

Math is a core liberal arts disciplines; that's one of the reasons it's constantly under attack.

All the liberal arts disciplines are under attack by education schools. Across the board.

Catherine Johnson said...

I know I am painting with a broad brush - just a thought.

Not at all --- not even remotely from where I sit.

As far as I can tell, our schools are now completely female-dominated, and not by women who majored in math.

We have almost no men left here in my district.

Our assistant superintendent actually told me she hadn't done an math since high school (she might have said she hadn't done any algebra...)

She's in charge of data analysis & data-driven instruction.

Catherine Johnson said...

We've got schools openly hiring people who haven't taken a math course since high school to put in charge of school data & statistics.

You can't go much further in terms of displaying utter indifference to the subject.

Catherine Johnson said...

When I put him in a charter school he tested at pre-algebra level. When I took him out three years later he still tested at pre-algebra level.

oh boy

this is just what I want to hear about charter schools

3 years

K9Sasha said...

In many ways, this school was the right one for my son at the time, but having him lose three years in math still rankles.

Catherine Johnson said...

How did that happen?

What was the charter school?

K9Sasha said...

My son has Asperger Syndrome and had a lot of anger management issues when he was younger. He was kicked out of a private school 6 weeks into 1st grade. At his second school he was suspended repeatedly. Same thing at his third school. The charter school was his fourth school, and not one single time did I get a phone call in the middle of the day to come pick him up from school. The teachers just handled the kids differently there, and didn't trigger my son's anger.

The school serves kids who don't fit, for whatever reason, in regular public school. Obviously, this describes my son. The classes are small - some have as few as 7 students - and every teacher is incredibly dedicated to this school and its students. My husband and I have served on the site committee and budget committee of the school since my son started there (6 years ago) and continue to do so even though my son is no longer a student there. Even that isn't quite true. He's currently taking one course, Personal Finance.

The one thing that my husband and I don't like about the school is their math program. But we can't get anywhere with the teachers when we bring it up. What the teachers tell us is that students enter the school up to three years behind in math and that the longer they're at the school, the more of that gap they close. They also claim their students do well on open ended math problems, but poorly on multiple choice tests because then the students don't actually work out the problems, but simply guess. The school is called Armadillo Technical Institute (and no, I'm not making that up.)

My son entered the school when he was in 7th grade and was put in the pre-algebra class, where he belonged. The following year he took algebra, and the year after that he was in geometry. I took him out of school to homeschool him in spring of that year, but worked it out with the math teacher for him to finish the geometry course. The first day of homeschooling he couldn't do his math problems. I said, "That's okay, you haven't learned this material yet, but do these ones over here, since they're algebra review." He couldn't do those ones either. The next two days for math I had him doing the Saxon and Singapore placement tests, and they placed him at pre-algebra. Because he was slightly ahead (he was in 6th grade going into ATI) and he managed to do pre-algebra and algebra together in one year, he's only a year behind where I'd like him to be. Even at that he'll be studying pre-calc and trig next year as a HS senior, so he's doing okay. On the other hand, think of where he could be if he hadn't lost three years.

K9Sasha said...

Let me clarify my son's grade level. He would have been in 6th grade going into ATI, but we grade skipped him. When I brought him home to homeschool, I rescinded his grade skip so there would be enough time to teach him all he needed to know to be ready for college.