kitchen table math, the sequel: Rich Getzel on teachers & constructivism

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rich Getzel on teachers & constructivism

The fact is, it would be a lie to say that schools teach "reading, writing, and 'rithmetic" these days. Sounding out words, memorizing 6 x 4 - we're obviously going to lose these kids if we demand that they master these basic skills. This is the kind of thinking that pervades education, and as a new educator, I want to do terrible things to the snake oil salesmen who have peddled this ideology.

But don't lay the fault squarely on the teachers. Many publications often pit parents (who depise EM) against teachers (who unqualifiedly embrace it). But practically every teacher I know (that's a lot) depises the fuzzy math programs to which our schools have subscribed.

I am a new teacher, 23, but I learned mathematics from a traditionalist perspective. I came to my school, as a newly minted educator, and I was horrified by the Impact Math textbook that I was expected to use. It is worse than Everyday Mathematics. It is constructivism on steroids, and I wish more people would talk about this program, because it gets short shrift compared to Everyday Math.

At no point does the textbook spell out any procedure necessary to solve a problem. It is riddled with convoluted "discovery" exercises that theoretically will help students induce the right answer, and the right way (or ways) to get there. There is a dearth of practice problems (i.e. the kind of problems that students will be expected to answer on a standardized test).

So how did I adjust? I simply never used the textbook. It could never work with CTT students who, across the board, were years behind in mathematics. I taught the way I was taught the material. It's a challenge because every night I have to hunt for activities and problems. But I do believe that the students have responded very well. It's a shame, because they don't have a standard reference (textbook) to help them do their homework at night, but even if we used the Impact Textbook, they would not have a reference.

Practically every teacher I know who has had the misfortune of inheriting Impact Mathematics does some variation of what I do. Even my principal is baffled by the textbook, but it was sold as the most widely used textbook out there. The higher-ups (chancellor and his ilk) are gung-ho about constructivist learning, and as a result, teachers, and sometimes even administrators, are slaves to a system they despise.

But hey, it's a change from the old way, and any change is good, right?


rgetzel86 said...

I'd like to take credit for that comment.

Rich Getzel, teacher in a Queens public school.

We really gotta figure out a way to harness all this antipathy towards these reform math programs - a way to get parents AND teachers to petition the NYCDOE (hey, if it becomes news in New York, it'll be everywhere). Sure, there's NYCHOLD, but what really is it besides a clearinghouse of online documents?

If it's any consolation, I finally have the principal's ear about transitioning to Prentice Hall's Mathematics, but I gotta tell you, it is a challenge to find a decent middle school math textbook out there.

My dad works in a District 26 public school, which is the best district in New York City. My schools were all in this district, and up until a few years ago, they uniformly taught traditionalist math. A few years back, my dad's school went to Everyday Mathematics. What were the results? My father's "A" school became a "B" school because standardized test scores went down. Next year, they are trashing Everyday Mathematics.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh, thanks!

I'm game for anything --- (in terms of political work here in NY -- )

SteveH said...

"Sure, there's NYCHOLD, but what really is it besides a clearinghouse of online documents?"

It's a group of people around the country who have been actively working for years at the local and national level for real math, not play math.

We are glad to add your voice to the debate, but there is a reason why we sometimes say: "They do what they do." Or, as they seem to say: "I'm Chevy Chase and you're not."

"...figure out a way to harness all this antipathy towards these reform math programs ..."

I think we hope that we can educate enough parents to achieve some sort of critical mass, or at least move the needle a little bit. There is no process for this kind of change, so many pin their hopes on choice. That's no guarantee, but it would allow some parents to take control right now and not have to wait for some sort of low proficiency cutoff to float all boats.

Catherine Johnson said...

What Steve said....

But I'm sure there's something more we could do at the state level. (I'm in NY.)

rgetzel86 said...

I didn't mean to step on the toes of NYCHold. The truth is that I'm not entirely sure what the organization does at a grassroots/political level. My comments are perhaps misinformed.

Barry Garelick said...

I'm part of NYCHOLD. It takes its name from the very first parent organization that protested against reform math, back in Palo Alto in 1995: Honest Open and Logical Debate.

The formation of HOLD back in 1995 led to formation of another organization called Mathematically Correct, which started a website (which is still there). The website allowed parents to comment and provide information on what was happening in their schools and about math programs, etc. It also provided detailed reviews of the various math programs, written by mathematicians, scientists and others. The programs were given reviews.

NYCHOLD does much of the same, and its leader, Elizabeth Carson, was doing much of the legwork in helping parents mount protests against the various bad math programs in NYC. There are active members of NYCHOLD who provide each other with data, to help overturn programs and this is done through a private list-serve. Ridgewood NJ recently overturned Everyday Math, and another district in NJ did the same thing.

KTM is another form of the same thing, but not quite as formal. NYCHOLD was set up before the advent of blogs, so in a sense is not as open as KTM. On the other hand, the public nature of KTM (anyone can read the blog) informs everyone what is going on.

There are other list-serves that are like NYCHOLD, but without websites. Catherine runs a list-serve for her tri-state area. Parent groups have sprung up all over.

In Prince William County, Virginia, some parents have started a web-site called Teach Math Right. They are protesting Investigations Math. Check it out:

Catherine Johnson said...

I think Elizabeth Carson has been very helpful to particular situations in particular districts. (Not sure what NYC HOLD has been doing at the state/national level & there's really no way for me to find out.)

Rich - what kinds of things are you thinking of?

As I say, I'm open to anything.

I remember reading that in CA parents & mathematicians (& probably classroom teachers who were allied with them) had more luck working at the state level to change standards than they did locally.

Barry Garelick said...

California's situation in 1995 got turned around at the state level. Jim Milgram and Hung-Hsi Wu, among others--parents and activists included--worked at the state level to get a new set of math standards adopted. This was behind the scenes political work and it pissed off the educrats in power and they are still pissed off about it. Wayne Bishop was instrumental in this effort as well, as I recall.