kitchen table math, the sequel: Another rude awakening

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another rude awakening

Last year, my first-born was in enrolled in our local public school in second grade, and although he spent 6 or 7 hours there each day, he came home with tons of homework and a good deal more learning remaining. I started to think, “Why am I sending my kids to school, when the school sends them back to me to educate?” A friend later complained to me that when they gave her son a book report, it meant at least 5 hours of her own time working on it with him. Another parent told me how great the tutoring was at the chain store down the street from her. All this got me to thinking: if I’m ultimately in charge of my kids’ education, why do I feel so powerless? . . .

I assumed that the government knows best what, and how, to teach my kids. It’s an assumption I was raised with, one I never challenged, until now. Well, you know what they say about you when you assume…

“It’s always worse than you think?” Well, that’s what we often say around here.

Another parent gobsmacked by our public schools

Back to School: Part One


Catherine Johnson said...

5 hours of parent time on a book report


of course, Ed spent many more hours than that 'helping' C. with writing assignments when C. was in 7th grade

Glen said...

I have my fourth grader do a hundred fraction problems while I do his "cut pictures out of magazines" homework for him. I have him work through middle school math contest problems, tossing him hints when he gets stuck, while I draw on his poster board. I had him learn every country in Europe while I built miniature teepees in a shoebox diorama.

He gets good grades on his schoolwork, but other parents--I mean kids, of course--often cut and paste better than I do.

His teacher thinks he's a "natural" at math, but there's nothing natural about it. It's man-made. It's training--the same sort of training you'd do if you needed to teach someone to cut hair or build birdhouses: show them how, help them a few times, and put them to work.

She would be shocked if she actually knew the level of difficulty of the math and science work he can do, but we're careful not to let her find out. Last year the teacher found out and was nasty to him for the rest of the year. She liked him when she thought he was a natural, but when she found out that he had to work at math, she was outraged.

"It's not fair to me that you are willing to do that much work for your father, but aren't doing the same for me!" I thought that I--I mean my son, of course--was cutting enough pictures out of enough magazines for her, but she apparently thought she deserved more.

She wanted to discuss the "problem" with me. She was concerned about how I was using his time. (How ironic.) She said that their Everyday Mathematics emphasized "conceptual understanding" and was concerned that my approach might not lead to "actual understanding." The previous night he had solved,

"We have four times as many cows as horses on our ranch. If we sold 280 cows, we'd end up with twice as many horses as cows. How many cows do we have?"

He was in third grade. I almost asked her to go to the board and show me how SHE would have taught him to solve it, with "actual understanding," but that would have been cruel. I held my tongue to keep my son out of trouble and said that I tried my best to help him understand. We left it at that.

This is one of the top 5% of elementary schools in Silicon Valley, so almost all the kids are performing at grade level--and that's where they want to keep them.

And I've now found out that at higher levels, middle school and high school, it's almost standard practice for parents to take the mindless homework load off their kids' shoulders to free up time for them to do the portion of homework that is actually useful.

If I have to do even more mindless homework, I may have to outsource it to India.

LynnG said...

enormous amounts of time are spent on projects that involve little in the way of obtaining knowledge. The kid that constructs a replica of the Nile delta need not know anything at all about the Nile or rivers or river deltas to get an A on the project. We found that the trees on the banks, and painting water into the middle were far more important than knowing why deltas flood and what impact that has on the ecological system.

Anonymous said...

It's sad to see that 5 years later nothing much has changed in the schools. The KTM Save Your Own club is as needed today as it was then.

I am so glad to be past all of that garbage. The shock for me was to find out that it didn't end with grade school. The middle schools will still have your child coloring for hours even if he can't construct a decent sentence.


SteveH said...

"The KTM Save Your Own club is as needed today as it was then."

Sometimes I think there is progress, but then I see the same old stuff and hear the same old arguments. State test proficiency becomes the goal rather than a minimum target.

Everyday Math has a stranglehold in our area, even for private schools. Students need much more than "conceptual understanding". They need the understanding that comes from mastery.

After teaching my son Algebra and Geometry the last two years, I could go through a whole chapter at a time with him. He would have all of the conceptual understanding you could want. Then I would have him do the problem sets. That would show me what he really understood.

This year in Algebra II, he had to solve some systems of equations (two variable) by substituting. They had already done a section on solving for the solution by graphing. He "understands" it. He knows what this is all about. He knows how to use it to solve word problems. Then he got to a problem where he had to substitute something like:

y = 1 - 3x

into x - y = 5

and got:

x - 1 - 3x = 5

When I pointed out his substitution mistake, he told me that he knew that. Apparently not well enough. Too many educators feel that mastery only adds speed, not understanding. They think that drill leads to kill, rather than understanding, and they offer no substitute.

Anonymous said...

My son is a student tutor at the high school this year, so I asked him what kinds of problems he was seeing. He just said, "Arithmetic, arithmetic, arithmetic. They don't know it." He had one student reach for the calculator for 8-4.

For algebra students he would find little strange gaps that at first appeared to be just oversights. He was surprised to find out that they weren't. They appear to be stupid mistakes, but the confusion is far deeper. So much for conceptual understanding. These kids just don't know the most fundamental rules to be able to solve a problem.


Redkudu said...

Our math teachers have been noting this year that they have students in one class (I think Geometry) who had never had another class (I think Algebra).

The placements have been due to grade level (based upon age) rather than completion of the required course.

Sorry, I'm not a math person, but what I'm hearing is that students are being placed in classes ahead of what they should be, basically. Math teachers are not happy and are being very vocal about it.

lgm said...

Placements are automated here. Since we have no honors math classes, bored mathy middle school students don't do homework yet ace their tests. Since homework is app 1/3 of the grade, they pass but the low grade results in placement in a double period remedial section the following year.

One of the major reasons we have no honors math classes is that those teachers were reassigned to double period and half pace classes.

SteveH said...

"Arithmetic, arithmetic, arithmetic."

The problems are clear, but K-6 schools don't have to deal with the consequences. They just spiral the kids along. Why don't high schools complain to the lower schools? There seems to be an 8th/9th grade wall in our area.

Our high school is shifting resources from the honors and AP classes to the low end remedial classes to try and meet the state's proficiency requirements. You would think that they would ask the lower schools to solve their own problems, not just pass them along.

Tex said...

This is all very depressing, the fact that the KTM Save Your Own Club continues to flourish.

My 8th grader came home the other day and warned me I was not going to like her health class assignment – coloring a hand and labeling the fingers. (Okay, not so horrible, but still unnecessary.)

Her favorite line regarding these types of assignments is, “Is this math (or English, science, social studies) class or is it art class? Make up your mind!”

Tex said...

Health class, from what I’ve seen before, consists mainly of endless discussions about sex, drugs and depression. I dunno, but to me this seems like another big waste of class time.

Tex said...

The only reason my D knows her arithmetic so well is because of Kumon. Back in the elementary grades, the teachers dismissed its importance.

LynnG said...

Health Class has been an enormous waste of time ever since it was invented back in the 70s and 80s. As far as I can tell, it has never once reduced the incidence of "risky" behavior, no matter how the course was designed.

lgm said...

My children have found health class useful because of the abuse unit and the healthy relationship unit. Those two units explain a lot of the social behavior they see. The drug unit is useful too. Because students do come to school high and/or drunk, the knowledge from the unit comes in handy when deciding if the classmate is mainstreamed or under the influence.

Lisa said...

I'm a member of the "Save Your Own" Club. That is why this week I've colored in a table sized map of the world while I had my high school freshman actually study world history and made a cell model while having my 6th grader read about the functions of the organelles. It's also why the last three of my kids are home schooled. I'm doing the job anyway.

Anonymous said...

Actually, coloring in maps is one of the few "arts and crafts" activities that can help children learn the content, since the whole point is to learn where countries and geophysical features are in relation to each other. But high school? in the '50's, students learned this stuff in the upper elementary and junior high grades.

Lisa said...

What I don't get is he opted for World History not World Geography specifically to avoid this. Trust me, this one knows his geography. I don't think free drawing the world on a huge piece of butcher paper and coloring it in is furthering his knowledge.

Allison said...

I drew freehand maps of every country in europe and north america, as well as the continents of South America, Africa, and the Mideast and parts of Asia in 3rd grade. We learned their climates, their main geography such as mountain ranges and rivers, their main crops, capitals and population centers. 3rd grade.

I loved that.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, if the kid already knows his geography, there's no benefit to the "coloring the maps" exercise. It's only helpful to those who are still learning. And, forgive me for this, but I don't think freehand drawing of maps is very helpful. We colored in maps where the outlines and main rivers were already there. That helps you learn geography as it actually is, not as your 9-year old fingers can represent it -- 2 entirely different things!

Kevin said...

For me, my final rude awakening was when I got a college statistics book and started to try teaching myself the equivalent of the elementary statistics course. Although it was meant for college use, it was far clearer than the high school math books. In addition, there was more actual math in it but fewer pages. In Precalculus, I am using the Keymath Curriculum or Discovering Math and prior to that, I used them in Algebra 1 and Geometry. Having to use the Discovering Algebra textbook was what got me into exploring math education and the beginning of the rude awakening. Yes, Piedmont High School, where I go, does have work that involves coloring. Some teachers there have seen calculation skills decline. Mr. Marthinsen now sees students that pull out the graphing calculator for 2+3 and cannot use trigonometric tables.

Glen said...

That's the sort of discovery approach to math I like: go discover a good textbook and work through it.

Catherine Johnson said...


oh brother

some of you will recall the dental dam episode here in my district....

to be fair, that was Wellness, not Health

Catherine Johnson said...

This is all very depressing, the fact that the KTM Save Your Own Club continues to flourish.

I think I'm seeing something interesting with my college freshmen students. They hail from places like the Bronx and Yonkers...and I think they may have better spelling and punctuation than the kids I know here.

On the other hand, I think quite a few are taking pre-algebra.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't think there's any way the public schools can improve given the anti-knowledge philosophy of the education schools & unions.

We had dinner the other night with a high school teacher we liked tremendously. He's everything you want in a teacher: hard-working, on the ball, dedicated to his students. He's pushing his department to take more responsibility for student learning.

But when he saw E.D. Hirsch's book on the coffee table, he characterized Hirsch as an "extremist."

He wasn't **against** Hirsch, particularly; he was making a statement of fact.

Inside his world, the world of public education, E.D. Hirsch is an "extremist."

We have a core issue of values: my values are almost diametrically opposed to the values of public education. Public schools aren't going to 'improve' because what I'm really talking about is a paradigm shift.

"Knowledge is good": that's the paradigm for me.

CassyT said...

Inside his world, the world of public education, E.D. Hirsch is an "extremist."

There is a professor in the UNI ed. school teaching a course on Core Knowledge. He is a bit of an outcast among the other professors there because of his views. He told me that he believed he was the Core Knowledge.