kitchen table math, the sequel: Barry on retrofitting a bad curriculum

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Barry on retrofitting a bad curriculum

However, the question still remains: if you've got a 'lemon,' in the form of an ineffective school or curriculum, then what?

Well, what did you do? You taught your son at home. That's reteaching but can also be called tutoring. I did the same with my daughter. Was it effective? I think so, but I resented having to do it. I got spoiled when my daughter had good teachers in 7th and 8th grades in math. I felt guilty not going through the work with her until I realized that "normal" mean the child understands it by going to school and learning it.

When things are abnormal, after a while it gets to be too much. If there's a good private school around and the parents can afford it, that's the option some seek (as you did).

In terms of other students I tutor, as Anne Dwyer said, if you can identify weak areas that are holding up learning, yes it's effective. In terms of retrofitting a bad curriculum, it's just about impossible as an independent tutor. The parents would have to be willing to have their child take an alternative course. In essence, that's what parents are doing when they send their children to Kumon or Sylvan, etc. Those are schools. So the child is put in the position of going to school twice, and the parents penalized by having their taxes go to waste, and having to shell out more money for the learning centers.

retrofitting a bad curriculum: that is a fantastically useful phrase.

That's a basic public school concept: we'll spend millions on this lousy math curriculum the parents can't stand and we'll "supplement."

Win - win!

Welcome to Grand Canyon


Anonymous said...


I'm incredulous. I used to teach in Seminole AND Orange County Florida.

This story just appeared in the newspaper today. If I wasn't sure before that I didn't want to teach in public school, then I am sure now. I don't know how to post the entire text. Of course, you all know what it says. Fuzzy math is great. We've calmed the fears of parents; FCAT scores are going up.

Former Public School Teacher

New math adds confusion to teaching equation

By Dave Weber
Sentinel Staff Writer

June 21 2009

SANFORD -- Take thousands of students, add a new method of math instruction and what do you get?

The complete article can be viewed at:,0,6702949.story

Crimson Wife said...

This is why I get so frustrated with people who say I should enroll my child in the local government-run school and then supplement after school. Hello, if I have to teach her at home anyways in order to ensure she actually learns something, then why the heck would I send her to the school to be bored out of her mind for 6 hours/day? Might as well officially homeschool and free up her afternoons and weekends for a balance of enrichment activities and unstructured play time...

eduprobe said...

How do you know if you've got a "lemon"? Is there a reliable objective measure for "ineffective school or curriculum"?

Different families will make different judgements on whether a teacher/school/district is doing a satisfactory job for their children. And will make different decisions regarding appropriate action to take.

Barry Garelick said...

There are various symptoms that crop up such as assignments that require students to do things for which they have received no instruction or preparation. Tell tale signs are that the kid sits there with homework in front of him/her doing nothing because he/she doesn't have a clue where to begin. As the parent tries to help their child it becomes obvious what hasn't been taught in class and what should have been taught in class in order for the assignment to make sense.

On KTM we've discussed many of the math programs and their failings, but you can Google on any of them (such as Investigations in Number, Data and Space; Everyday Math; Math Trailblazers; Connected Math Program; Interactive Math Program (IMP); Core Plus; and you'll run into criticisms. Or go to or Illinois Loop to get information on various math programs.

If you're child is still having to make dioramas in the 12th grade in lieu of a term paper, this is a fairly good indication of a lemon curriculum, but you can get the gist long before then.

Barry Garelick said...

In thinking about this further, you might want to check out the Core Knowledge web site, which has information on the goals by grade level that students should be mastering. Their website is
located here

An interesting article about a Core Knowledge school is available

Regarding math, a good list of what students should be mastering in math in K-7 to get them algebra ready for 8th grade is in the National Math Advisory Panel's report. It is located here

The NMP report also contains topics that should be in an "authentic" algebra class (as opposed to a "pretend algebra" course which is almost indistinguishable from 6th grade arithmetic).

I'm sure others will have additional recommendations. Your question is a good one.

SteveH said...

Something I've mentioned before is the first math tracking test that is given by a school. It usually happens in 6th grade to determine which of 2 or 3 levels of math the students will be placed into in 7th grade. Unfortunately, if your child is not on the top level track that heads to an "authentic" (hopefully) algebra course in 8th grade, then the student may never get there. The other tracks should just be a slower route along the same path, but many use different textbooks and end up going somewhere else. So, ask your school if and when they start tracking in math. Ask for a sample of the tracking test and what grades are required for each track. Don't take no for an answer. It could be that the math curriculum does not prepare the kids to take this test. If you get a sample test, you can make your own determination.

By the way, one parent I talked to called the algebra in 8th grade track the "high honors" math track. That surprised me. It should be the normal math track.

You could also take the Singapore Math placement test, but that's too scary.

It is a good question.

That's your next article, Barry. "Barry's How to Tell if You Have a Lemon for a Math Curriculum."

Barry Garelick said...


If they do indeed use different textbooks, that is an issue. In my daughter's case, her 7th grade teacher recommended she not take 8th grade algebra. Her teacher happened to be quite good and I respected her. I think it was the right decision. She had algebra this year (9th grade) and the text is the same: Larson, Boswell, Stiff. Not a great text, but fortunately the teacher sequenced things according to what he knew should be in an algebra course, so he led them to the derivation of the quadratic formula, rather than presenting the formula first as something to memorize in Chapter 9 and derive it in Chapter 12. Who gets to Chapter 12? Right. No one.

Unfortunately, while he sequenced the course properly,and knew his stuff, he didn't teach it well, so I was her after school algebra teacher. That wouldn't be a curriculum problem, though.

Barry Garelick said...

In general, there are certain phrases and indicators to watch for in any class you child has that should be a red flag that it's a bad curriculum:

Student-centered learning
PowerPoint projects
Authentic learning
Group projects
Class projects
Student projects
Projects of any kind
Instruction sheets with a supply list calling for poster board and pipe cleaners

Jo Anne C said...

Other things to look for:

Classroom desks arranged in groups
Teachers that expect students to "discover" knowledge for themselves
A lack of grammar instruction
A lack of spelling instruction
A lack of history instruction
A lack of geography instruction
A lack of writing instruction
Book reports which require coloring
Projects that exceed student capabilities

Worst of all, if a teacher tells you not to worry your child will grasp that difficult math concept when the spiral comes around again,


Crimson Wife said...

What I like about California is that they actually give schools two rankings on the state standardized tests. That way I don't get lolled into a false sense of security that the school my children are zoned for is in the top 10% statewide. The crucial thing is how it does compared to other schools in the state with similar demographics: bottom 20%, ouch!

Jo Anne C said...

One more phrase:

Lots of "hands on" work (a major red flag in my book)

It is important though to verify what a course will entail.

An instructor may use the latest buzz words (sending up red flags) however he may not follow in lock step with fuzzy methods.

Jo Anne C said...

The CA API similar schools score does help counter the "award winning schools" baloney put out by many school boards. But if you live in a district like mine, which is not above gaming the system, you still need to be very concerned.

Our district administration discovered they could fail to submit 1/3 of the test scores by indicating they were "incomplete" and boost their standing on the API reports.

That is until they got caught by a parent watch dog organization, oops!

Another failure of the CA API similar schools scores is that parents may be the ones responsible for those higher test scores (as in Palo Alto) but that doesn't stop the public schools from taking all the credit.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to find math teachers who will teach despite having to use one of these "inquiry-based" programs. If you're stuck in one of these schools, ask around (other parents) to see if there is a teacher who does teach. Perhaps you can request your child to have him/her.

I am a middle school teacher in a district that uses College Preparatory Mathematics. The course is designed to be taught in an inquiry/spiraling approach (where mastery will "eventually" come), but I am free to minimize the inquiry and emphasize the mastery. Occasionally a small dose of inquiry can be good, but you do need to then follow up right away with teaching the concept that they were to discover.

I will say, though, that if you're middle school is using Connected Math - even a great teacher will have trouble overcoming that poor excuse for a program (unless they don't use most of it).

Crimson Wife said...

To Jo Anne C:
Doesn't it matter what subject is using "hands on" activities? In certain ones, I *WANT* my child to be doing lots of hands-on work and not just sitting around listening to lectures and reading the textbook. Science, art, and music come to mind as examples.

If it's a math course beyond the primary grades, then I absolutely agree with you. Even in the primary grades, students should move on to regular pencil-and-paper work once they've gotten the basic idea with manipulatives.

Jo Anne C said...

My understanding is that Science curricula in this country is in more of a crisis than math. Much instructional time is devoted to hands on experimentation that may or may not convey the knowledge that is supposed to be mastered.

The K-12 online course(which we use) has an abundance of hands on science assignments, it soon became obvious, that I had neither the skills or scientific understanding to convey the important concepts to my 5th grade son by completing the experiments sucessfully (which I rarely could do).

K-12 science is a thoroughly scripted program, yet it left me wanting more in the way of written worksheets to provide mastery of the scientific concepts. I had to turn over the science lessons to my engineer husband who quickly disposed of many of the time consuming experiments, in favor of reviewing the concepts with my son or providing simpler examples that better demonstrated the scientific principles.

The point is that there are only so many hours in the day. The K-12 program is very challenging, and has an abundance of the core knowledge material students should master, but it tries to appeal to both sides. There are many hands on experiments, plenty of drawing, and coloring, while also providing many work sheets and much writing. There absolutely isn't enough time in a day to do it all. I focused on the pencil and paper written assignments, and my son was very happy not to have to draw pictures for Language Arts assignments, or write in journals about his feelings.

Since few K-8 teachers have strong scientific bacgrounds, I would be especially wary of the actual value of the popular hands on science programs used in classrooms today.

Art and Music - definitely hands on subjects. But the historical aspect of both will be conveyed through books, and listening to important musical pieces with a lecture to point out important points to understand.

The K-12 art program is fabulous! For 5th grade the art program parallels the history program. When the history unit covers early American Indian tribes, the art lesson will have you study and replicate various tribal artifacts. As we progressed into the History of the 13 colonies, in art we studied federal architecture, portraiture and much more. Each of these art lessons had a hands on art project that was to be completed. My son has completed some of his best art work this year as I was able to provide him with one on one instruction on how to draw with perspective and the use of color for shading and lighting and to provide depth to a picture. This is a major accomplishment given the fact that in the previous 4 years he only brought home stick figures showing little effort on his part.

I understand that many parents are fond of hands on work. There is a trade off using this approach though, as it takes too much time to cover the necessary material, and often it does not convey the core content knowledge that should be mastered.

eduprobe said...

I appreciate the ideas here about indicators of ineffective school curriculum.

Barry, what is your concern with projects? I suspect that you have something particular in mind. Surely it's reasonable to ask students occasionally to do independent research or work with peers to produce a group result. When are "projects" indicators of poor schools/curricula/teachers?

Barry Garelick said...

My problem with projects is when they are not age appropriate. In 9th grade history, for example, having to write a brochure for a school based on the precepts of Zen Buddhism, or Confucianism or any of the other religions they were studying at the time. Writing brochures, designing postcards, etc, may be seen as clever, but it wastes time because the student is worried about layout, and the various other artistic aspects of the project that have nothing to do with the subject at hand.

In her 8th grade English class, she was given a choice of things to do regarding the book they were reading (Lord of the Flies). One of them was to design a T shirt illustrating a central theme of the book. Another choice was a book report. She chose the book report. At least she had a choice. Some classes don't offer a choice and you end up with such stupidity.

See JoAnn's comment about her concern with "hands on" projects and that sums up my concerns with projects. There are so many hours in a students' day; let's spend it mastering writing well structured essays.

Working in groups can be good, but it's mostly bad. I myself dislike working in groups in school and always have. In ed school we were sometimes given a math problem to work on in groups, as an example. Someone would have some insights, take the lead, and I would shut down. I was a bit slower and didn't have time to collect my thoughts. Kids need time to know what they're thinking--give them guidance, sure, but putting them in groups all the time gets old real fast and accomplishes very little.

Independent research is fine, as you suggest, but they need to be instructed on how to conduct research and assemble the researched material into something they can then turn into a report. She had to do a research project on the suffrage movement in the 6th grade. It was called in inquiry based study. The received no instruction on how to conduct research and we ended up doing a lot of it for her. A good example is what she had recently in high school in her English class where they had to turn in an outline, a list of sources they were going to use, and then they had to turn in notes, etc. This was structured and taught them step by step how to do it.

So in answer to your question about when projects are indicators of poor curricula, I've given you some examples. Kids shouldn't be building models or designing posters, or doing artistic type projects in high school when they need to be honing research and writing skills. Dioramas and collages in 12th grade is ludicrous.

Barry Garelick said...

Just realized I left out who "she" was in the above. I was referring to my daughter. Sorry for the confusion.

Allison said...

Science teaching in k-8 in this country is worse than math teaching.

hands-on science teaching does not work unless it's a tiny portion of an incredibly well sequenced course, with an instructor who carefully designed the lab or demonstration as a part of a lesson where Their Hands are on it, but children are only hands-on if allowed to mimic exactly the instructor.

Even in college courses, the "hands on" portion comes only after lecture, recitation section, pre-lab homework, and other prep work. The lab needs to be followed to the letter or it doesn't work. Most demos in college physics are done by the instructor, not the student. You aren't going to get a group of 4 7th graders to be sophisticated enough to do a real lab.

So instead, the "hands on" stuff is about like the silly stuff you see at your local science or children's museum. They are displays where the kids can "do" things, but WHAT they do isn't controlled, and isn't teaching them or anyone else anything. The idea that telling two kids to "experiment" by dropping a grapefruit and a golf ball and observing what happens, and that is will lead them to understand and suddenly realize what Galileo did is absurd. Unless they've been primed exactly to lead to that question by already having been taught about gravity, mass, density, air resistance, time, events, hypotheses, data analysis, etc. they won't see what they are supposed to learn.

The chance that a science teacher in grade k-8 even knows enough science in the first place to get the science across is very small.

But you'd have been better off just TEACHING the real stuff in the first place. Thought experiments are what real scientists have done for millenia.

Anonymous said...

"My understanding is that Science curricula in this country is in more of a crisis than math". I second the point. In middle school especially. In NY, for grades 6-8, science is a terrible mix of disciplines, and of course, it "must be mostly hands on!". It's illogigical, and the purpose is not to teach science but to "create an interest in science". Instead, we create a confusion.
And then, in HS, subjects such as "Physical science" or "Geophysical" or "General science" are taught to compensate for luck of logical understanding and ability to solve word problems algebraically. And the whole disciplines are crammed in one year... And some (such as Physics!) are optional.


Anonymous said...

Oups, that should be "lack".


ChemProf said...

Right. "Hands-on" sounds good for science, but a good lab should illustrate a specific point and be bulletproof (especially for middle school/high school). A lot of students I've talked to had big discovery-based labs, where they spent a whole bunch of time and learned almost nothing. In some cases, it wasn't even clear what point was supposed to be illustrated -- like dropping water onto a coin and figuring out how many drops it took, except the results were all over the map. Often the labs are supposed to be fun, but seem pointless instead.

In my college course, we went to a lot of effort to link lab and lecture, so that it is always clear what students are doing and why, and even though a lot of our labs are old school and not entertaining, we get very positive feedback from students (plus we see the results in lecture). A good example is our first gas law lab -- students have already had a couple of lectures on gas behavior, and do a prelab assignment, so are ready to see the point when they watch gas pressure as they push and pull on a syringe. And once we introduced the lab, students had much less trouble with gas laws in homework and on exams. But just letting junior high kids play with a pressure meter won't necessarily teach them anything, even if it looks like "authentic discovery."

Science teaching in K-12 is pretty bad -- the focus on education as entertainment leads teachers to try to make everything like a science museum and focus on the fun stuff rather than the basic principles. Plus group work doesn't help. It is common, for example, to have each student pick a single element and make an "element box" to share with the class, rather than requiring every student to learn basic information about the ten or twenty most common elements on earth, which would be more useful in the long run.

Sigh...I'm getting my early placement tests coming in for General Chemistry, and this thread is making me depressed...

Crimson Wife said...

I agree that experimentation should be closely linked to topics being studied and should be properly discussed. What I was criticizing is the "Who's Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" approach to science. I was a science major at Stanford and lots of times I can't answer the science questions on that show because they're trivia.

That's what I remember my pre-college science classes being like: a whole bunch of memorization, regurgitation on exams, and promptly forgetting virtually everything after the test.

I got to college and was actually expected to be able to think critically about science. That was really, really challenging at first, and I have the grades to prove it. But after I caught on, it made me realize how much better that approach is to what I experienced in my K-12 schooling.

ChemProf said...

"That's what I remember my pre-college science classes being like: a whole bunch of memorization, regurgitation on exams, and promptly forgetting virtually everything after the test. "

Sure, but it's related to the whole "hands on" thing, as interpreted in K-8 in particular. The real issue is that there's nothing systematic about science, so the class jumps from one topic to another with silly projects and lots of trivia -- weather this week and photosynthesis the next -- rather than building up a body of knowledge that can be accessed in high school and college.

Honestly, I've given up assuming any level of knowledge in my incoming students, except for the mole which they've typically spent way too much time on. Even my placement test is half basic chemical definitions (what is an ion, for example) and half sixth grade math (including a series of questions about a recipe -- how many cookies before you run out of an ingredient, that kind of thing). If they can do the math, they can manage without any chemistry knowledge, but if they can't do either, they can't handle my class.

Jo Anne C said...

Critical thinking about any subject can't be accomplished without foundational knowledge.

You may have retained far more of your K-12 memorized science than you realize, even though you prefer the methods used in the college courses.

There just aren't enough K-12 teachers with science degrees who are able to think critically about the subject, so hands on work in that case will likely be more about entertainment than acquiring the needed background knowledge to succeed in college. (This was the case for my son with me at the helm of the K-12 science lessons)

My son is quite happy to skip the hands on experiments, he actually prefers to read the books and memorize the material, it goes much faster that way, and then he can go out and play. I tend to be like my son, why waste time? I preferred to be told what I am expected to know, and then I'd go out and learn it.

An astronomy textbook I was required to use in college was written from the discovery point of view, I had a real problem with that book and its method. I wasn't going to discover the information for my self. I needed to be told what I was supposed to be learning or I wasn't going to learn it. (I wasn't a science major)

I don't see the point in having students struggle with obtaining knowledge, and avoiding direct instruction. Why have teachers if they aren't going to teach? There just isn't enough time (or enough knowledgeable instructors) in K-12 for these methods to be used sucessfully.

eduprobe said...

Barry, I think I understand your issue with "projects". I'll try to rephrase:

A "project" is any chunk of schoolwork assigned by the teacher for the student to complete outside of class time.
Projects are not inherently bad, but assignment of project work is a trouble indicator when the students are not previously given adequate instruction in the tools they need to do the work. For example:

* "create a Powerpoint presentation about Napoleon" (when the child has never been explicitly taught how to use Powerpoint)
* "research the causes of the Great Depression" (when the child has never been shown how to do library or online research)
* "prepare and deliver a group presentation about the hydrologic cycle" (when the students have never been given guidance in how to divide up work within a team, or in how to use props effectively or deliver a compelling presentation)

So, no fair asking kids to do something when you haven't given them appropriate tools to do it with.

Anonymous said...

ChemProf, you said:"The real issue is that there's nothing systematic about science, so the class jumps from one topic to another with silly projects and lots of trivia -- weather this week and photosynthesis the next -- rather than building up a body of knowledge that can be accessed in high school and college."

Absolutely! There is no system, even the disciplines do not exist until high school.

If I were to re-do american education, I would replicate soviet school curricullum.(From the distance, and after some time, it seems incredibly logical,almost perfect!)The systematic, logical approach is the key. I had never taken physics after grade school, but I could teach it as a part of physical science (grade 9!)after looking over my russian physics text books for grades 6 and 7, which used algebraic approach to physics.
I wrote about soviet school couple years ago on this blog.


Paul B said...

This thread is drifting into (if memory serves) an earlier series of discussions on the need for curriculum coherence; across the board.

In Japan teachers collaborate for years to drive curricula into coherence. In the U.S. not so much. In fact curricular design is far to strongly text book driven and there is no collaboration that I know of to sync up science, math, history, and ELA.

I taught a 'remedial' math course once that was intended for use from grades 6 to 9. The intended recipients were to be no more than 2 years below grade level to be in the program. Theoretically then, I could have a child with fourth grade capabilities using these textbooks.

The books? Oh yeah. They were assessed at a grade 11 level lexile (readability). You just can't make this stuff up folks. Your head would explode.

Allison said...

--In fact curricular design is far to strongly text book driven and there is no collaboration that I know of to sync up science, math, history, and ELA.

Paul, isn't it worse than this?

It's not really textbook driven, as much as it is not driven at all. The model coming out of ed-school is "teachers should make up their own materials for the curriculum, their own lesson plans, etc." with no teaching in ed school of practical pacing, no attention to what the standards are in that state for various years, etc. for those things. So the teachers are expecting to design their own curricula, and then, lo and behold, the schools and districts have standards to follow, so they can't really do that, and didn't have the skills anyway.

The textbook is the "design" because the text book is all they've got in their pocket, so to speak.

Some larger school districts (like here in St. Paul) definitely have top-down curricula that appear to be based on the textbook. They reference teaching various chapters and sections on a specific schedule. But usually when you actually READ the curriculum and standards, the content in the standards is so poor that it becomes clear you could cut-n-paste a new textbook table of contents onto the old standards and nothing would be lost (or gained.)

So again, it's not as if the school said consciously "we'll follow the textbook's curriculum map". It's more that their map is textbook driven in the sense that no one else was driving at all.

Paul B said...

It's worse in the sense that it is disguised. In my district we pushed for a curriculum design that would make the book just one component of something bigger. What we got was the book as cut and paste.

We now have (much admired) curriculum 'maps' that drive our use of the books. They're not curriculum so much as they are training wheels. If you read the maps they seem quite comprehensive. If you're a student on the receiving end, nothing has changed.

An example... We now have 'On Demand Tasks' as chapter assessments. If you are on top of your game you'll recognize these as homework problems straight out of the book. Sometimes they're even problems that have been assigned. We also have proscribed 'Unit Projects' from the maps and these are open response questions straight from our state tests.

Since neither of these 'assessments' are broad enough to assess anything I develop and administer my own. I can't tell you what I do with the others.

If you're looking in through the windows we look like we really have our act together. There was even talk (from district pooh bahs)of publishing our curriculum, as in books with covers. This discussion was occuring during their first year of use. Thankfully this fantasy was dropped.

If you're inside, with your face pressed to the glass(and courageous)the maps are on prominent display during admin and state safaris then safely tucked away during teaching.

We've got lots of teachers trying mightily to change this but there's a leadership vacuum that only stops sucking long enough to throw ball bearings into the machine.