kitchen table math, the sequel: yet another brilliant idea from the folks who brought you all those other brilliant ideas

Thursday, December 22, 2011

yet another brilliant idea from the folks who brought you all those other brilliant ideas

Jen writes:
I was talking to a teacher friend the other day and he was lamenting that the curriculum is going to change yet again and that if they follow what they say they want to do, they'll move everything to a grade earlier.

Mind you, this is an urban district with not great scores. Mind you, they spent years with EM which is likely the worst way to teach kids who come in without number sense, without support for education at home, and without a parent who can figure out what's being asked and more importantly, what's being missed.

But, the new big idea (again, this is really part of the idea of spiraling) is that if kids aren't getting, 5th grade math in 5th grade it means you really need to teach those concepts in...4th grade! Brilliant! Bravo! Imagine how much better they'll do at it, not learning it at an earlier age!

Now kids coming into K and 1st grade without any number skills, 1-3 years behind other kids of middle class, well-educated parents, will be expected to be getting through 1-3 more years of math in their first few years of school, too. It's genius!

What teacher can't take 25-30 elementary students who are starting behind and teach them 2-6 years of math in a year? Whiner slacker teachers, that's who!
I say, Whiner, slacker teachers of the world, unite!


Genevieve said...

The Principal of my daughter's school said that the same thing would happen next year. He said it was because of Common Core. The district (urban 60% FRL)is implementing it so that every student can take Algebra in 8th grade.
A side effect is that he doesn't think advanced math students will need to be pulled out in 6th grade. Currently, a few advanced students in 3rd & 4th grade go up a grade for math instruction. There used to be a tutor for advanced 5th grade students. The tutor was eliminated for equity issues (most other schools in the district didn't have one because there weren't enough students that were advanced). Other schools send their students to middle schools for math. Now every student is supposed to be served in the classroom. After all, 6th grade math is now being taught in 5th grade.
At least we don't have Everyday Math.

Crimson Wife said...

There really is only about 5 years' worth of material in the K-6 math sequence. In 3rd and 4th grade, all the new material I learned could've been covered in a single semester. The rest was nothing but review. It would be very easy to compact the curriculum to get done a year faster.

ChemProf said...

Crimson Wife - for you or me, or our kids, that is doubtless true. I finished Calc in eleventh grade, despite not taking any in eighth (I got ahead of the system). However, for the kids Jen is talking about, going faster just doesn't work well. They come in with huge gaps -- my mother is constantly shocked by my 2.5 year old who has more math skills than many of her incoming kindergarteners -- at a lot of the first couple of years is bringing them to where a middle class kid would be entering kindergarten. This is just teaching these kids that they are failures at age 6.

lgm said...

I agree w/ChemProf. I've volunteered to help with math in K-2 in our diverse district. The experience reminds one of the Romanian orphan stories. The children are coming in without any experience in numbers - not even the nursery rhymes of 1,2 Buckle My Shoe. These are not recent immigrants, just children of high school grads. Many really don't know colors and have no vocab to even express a question as to the difference between two identical objects of the different colors.

As far as standards, our experience w/NY was that K-2 is one set, 3-5 is another and 6-8 is another. Each set takes a year for a prepared child if he can have an hour a day. What the teachers did to differentiate for those that 'get it' quickly was to offer problem solving and projects and require them to become proficient in presenting solutions. It's common here in NY to spread pre-algebra out in 6-8 and offer Integrated Algebra I to some 8th graders, and in some districts (Arlington for ex.) some 7th graders.
The future is already here - if children who are developmentally behind are not special education, just rTi, then the middle class child is going to sit and wait. Citizens can allow that, or they can move on to homeschool or private school or some blend.

kcab said...

Regarding how many years are required to learn the math taught in elementary school, there was an interesting experiment carried out in Manchester, NH in the 1930's by then-superintendent Benezet. Here's one link to a copy of an article he wrote about it:

Briefly, he delayed formal math instruction until 6th grade for several classes of students, focusing on English instead. (Manchester, a mill town, had a large immigrant, ESL population.) Those students then progressed rapidly through math between 6-8th grade. I don't know of standardized test results for kids who experienced the different instruction streams though. (And, unlikely that experiment will be tried in the current climate!)

Allison said...

I think a lot of things are being mixed together. New requirements/standards, poorly taught children, going faster or slower.

I don't know where Jen is, or Chem Prof's mom, but in NY, the old standards had 3rd graders only beginning to get multiplication *facts*. They are in 3rd grade and still being taught addition and subtraction. Now, 3rd grade Common Core still won't get to the multiplication and division algorithms, but it absolutely gets to multiplication and division. Yes, this is "a year earlier". But do you REALLY think it was okay that 3rd graders weren't doing multiplication????

No, it wasn't. And which kids are the most disadvantaged by this? The kids poorly prepared at home, or well prepared at home?

Going slower hurts everyone, and it hurts those poorly prepared more than those well prepared in many cases. These kids need more math. They need it sooner, faster, and better.

Singapore's Primary Math program would have these kids doing multiplication in grade 2, and that program assumes children don't even know anything at all beyond counting to 10 when they enter in first grade (no universal kindergarten in Singapore.) So the problem isn't doing it earlier. It also isn't starting with "unprepared" children. The problem is we don't set out to teach kids math, and our teachers are largely unprepared to teach math even in the primary grades.

To repeat myself: my son's kindergarten teacher and her peers use Orton Gillingham to teach all of the kindergarteners to read by the end of kindergarten, regardless of where they started with letter recognition or phoneme awareness. Doesn't matter what they knew, and no one uses that as an excuse for not teaching these kids to read. This issue of gaps wouldn't be a problem if we had a system for teaching arithmetic that teachers learned to use that would get everyone to mastery.

Glen said...

There used to be a tutor for advanced 5th grade students. The tutor was eliminated for equity issues...

Yes, when closing the achievement gap is the Prime Directive, what is appropriate educationally becomes inappropriate politically.

Jen said...

I agree with lots of these comments. It is because of common core -- and I agree that 3rd graders should be starting and finishing multiplication.

I also agree that any kid can and should be caught up by third grade.

The teacher I was talking with knows that they do love all the EM things that are still in the new "blended" curriculum. They love the spiraling, which means more topics in a year, since you have to hit everything every year. They love the group learning and all the rest. So, this won't be aiming to hit the core's standards, this will be shoving them in without any real thought to what needs to be streamlined or jettisoned. It's not about going slower or faster, it's about the fear that yet again, mastery won't be the goal.

Orton Gillingham IS great for reading. But there isn't the money or the people hours (or currently the desire) to do the same for math. In general, it's easier to raise math scores on state NCLB tests through drilling on questions just like the test. That's where the emphasis is.

What happens is exactly what's described above (and you'll see this as your son gets into higher grades). Kids who know the material or who pick up the entire unit's concepts on day one will spend about 15 days a year learning and maybe another 25 in useful practice and the rest? Depends on the school and teacher, but the emphasis will be on the kids who need to be caught up.

Kids won't be accelerated as they may have been, either. Just as Genevieve above notes, districts will say that now, everyone is accelerated and actually use this as a reason to decrease course offerings and choices for students.

Once you've actually seen a kindergarten student with no "one to one correspondence," no sense of less and more, no real sense of numbers at all, it's hard to fathom. You've got kids in K who know about squaring numbers and can do all sorts of calculations in their head and others who shove a random pile at you when told to "give me three of your beads." I've seen kids who have clearly never counted anything out with their caregivers in 5 years of life.

Catherine Johnson said...

Our new interim superintendent, who is a breath of fresh air in every other respect, just gave a presentation on student achievement that lumped the 3s and 4s together (our state tests have a score range of 1 to 4) and the 1s and 2s together.

Great news!

For our nearly $30K per pupil spending and our next-to-zero population of students who qualify for reduced price lunch, most of our students have once again passed the state tests.

Good enough is good enough.

Allison said...


I started this nonprofit:, so I know teachers from many places and know how wide the range in a classroom can be. But it isn't a reason for teachers to throw up their hands and suggest they shouldn't be asked to do things differently when by their own admission, what they are doing is obviously not working.

So what that a kid can't count to 3 in K? In Singapore, that happens too, and yet, they learn in first grade how to count and add and subtract. It's neither magic nor rocket science.

It's not the lack of money. It's not the lack of people hours. One huge reason is a lack of clarity on what needs to be taught, and how it should be taught, and barely no translation of that knowledge into teachers' minds. Yes, scratch the surface of why those things are true, and you find more pernicious issues, too. But the breadth of students in a classroom is no reason for the lowest students to be taught nothing. That teachers or administrators or parents use that excuse does not make it so.

You can move the goalposts and talk about kids not being accelerated, but my comment was about the complaint that it was somehow illegitimate to demand schools to do more math earlier. It isn't.

SteveH said...

"What teacher can't take 25-30 elementary students who are starting behind and teach them 2-6 years of math in a year? Whiner slacker teachers, that's who!"

As I've said before, the problems of education are not defined by what walks into a classroom. The problems of education are not the same as the problems of teachers. The problems between teachers and administrations should not be my problems. I can be sympathetic with the plight of teachers in full inclusion classrooms, but not sympathetic about why things like full inclusion and "trust the spiral" are taken for granted.

My son's fifth grade teacher had students who didn't know the times table. These were perfectly capable kids who came from affluent families. You would think that the teacher would yell and scream about how the lower grade teachers failed in their duties. That didn't happen. Clearly they couldn't trust the spiral, but they did. If disadvantaged kids get to fifth grade not knowing the times table, a common reaction is to blame external causes - poverty, peers, and parents. There is no basis for this conclusion except one's own bias or assumptions about school.

Raising standards won't automatically make them happen, but the pressure they put on schools does make a difference. Our schools started all-day Kindergarten the year my son entered school. The goal was to try to get all kids close by first grade. This change was a result of pressure by NCLB. The downside is that the school doesn't use effective curricula - Orton Gillingham is only used as a last resort in later grades - and they are determined to keep full inclusion and trust the spiral techniques. Given that, how can one tell what disadvantaged kids can or can't do?

In terms of more math early, you have to look at the details. You have to look at the questions on the tests. I've looked at these for our state test and I've looked at the Common Core standards. My view is that virtually all kids can meet these standards. You also have to have math standards that explicitly lead to algebra in 8th grade. That's what the Common Core Standards (feebly) try to do. You can't allow curriculum gaps based on statistical data from bad math curricula. Algebra in 8th grade is not just a "math brain" thing.

This is an absolute or systemic problem, not a relative one. Schools cannot hold individuals hostage to their peer group, whether they come from low or high SES families. Some high SES parents figure this out and their help at home hides the magnitude of the problem.

Jen said...

Allison (and Steve)

Where do you see me (or the teacher I was talking with) saying there is a "reason for the lowest students to be taught nothing"?! Or saying that students can't learn due to their background? Saying that a child is far, far behind the average at a suburban district in no way says anything about their capacity for learning at school.

If you read through, I am saying that they way we are doing it currently, in my district, is NOT working. And the response of the administration is to enforce the current scripted curriculum further, and to punish teachers who try to use more effective practices. My post was about the fear that instead of looking at what kids do and don't know and working intensively to catch kids up, they are just going to add more disjointed and poorly thought out bits and pieces to an already bad curriculum.

I have no reason to doubt that this is so, having seen the dismantling of the education provided in our district over the last 5+ years. I would appreciate it if you would refrain from attributing to me the idea that I think children can't learn or be taught.

kcab said...

I'm in the midst of reading an article that compares math curricular content in the US to that in other TIMSS countries. (Found it via a link that Catharine posted on Debbie's blog.) It's from 2002 but I suspect the situation is probably still very similar -

Essentially, that article indicates that more topics are covered per year in the US and are revisited for many more years than is done in the other countries studied. The US math curriculum is seen as incoherent.

If the Common Core is seen as adding topics to those already to be covered, I can see how teachers would perceive that as making the situation worse. On the other hand, if the curriculum becomes more focused and moves on from basic topics to more advanced in a sensible way, that ought to make math education better here in the long run. I imagine it will take a while to that goal.