kitchen table math, the sequel: Notice for parents new to KTM

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Notice for parents new to KTM

I thought a post might be good for parents new to KTM and this problem.

Kitchen Table Math exists because many K-8 schools don't ensure mastery of basic skills. Parents have to do the work at home. And, as one can see by other posts, it's not just a problem in math. Everyday Math, a common math curriculum, spirals through the same material each year in the hope that students at all levels will master the skills when they are ready. They assume that this works by definition. They tell teachers to keep moving and to "trust the spiral". It doesn't work.

One night long ago, I told my son to stop fooling around and do his EM math homework (from a workbook, not a textbook). Ten minutes later, I saw him doing other things and told him to do his math. He said it was already done. I looked at the workbook and saw only 4 easy problems. When I asked the teacher about this, she said that they will get a chance for more practice when they spiral back to the same material. They talk about how spiraling builds on previous knowledge and skills, but I saw only repeated partial learning. One parent complained that three of her kids were covering the exact same material and they were in three different grades. Either they knew the material already and were bored, or they were still confused.

Parents learn the hard way that it doesn't work. Many schools know that it doesn't work too because they send home blanket notes to parents asking them to work on "math facts". They must know that that some parents can't or won't. Unfortunately, this problem doesn't just stop at basic arithmetic. It continues with things like fractions, percentages, and solving equations. Parents are left reteaching their kids at home or with tutors. Some parents don't see this problem until 7th grade when their bright child gets placed into the "slow" math track. It's unlikely that the student will recover after that point. It could be an ability issue, but too many students respond well to curricula like Singapore Math (as with my son) at home or with tutors. KTM is loaded with examples of how parents had to help their kids.

When my son was in fifth grade, his teacher found bright students who still didn't know the times table. Some were still adding 7+8 on their fingers. She had to stop trusting the spiral to get students back up to speed. This caused her to skip 35% of the material that year, but the focus on mastery did work. However, she did not try to get the lower grade teachers to improve mastery of the basics.

This is not difficult material if mastery of basic skills is ensured starting in the earliest grades. However, the "trust the spiral" attitude pumps problems along until many gaps have built up and teachers can't possibly diagnose and address each one. That’s why Everyday Math includes things called "Math Boxes" to try to get students to fix themselves. This makes math seem much more complicated than it really is. Schools talk about critical thinking and problem solving, but they don't define them exactly and many students can't show them on state tests designed to match these teaching ideas. Those vague skills don't make up for a lack of mastery of the basics. The best students are the ones with the best mastery of skills.

Unfortunately, the new Common Core Standards won't force K-6 schools to fix the problems of mastery. The use of the word "fluent" in the standard is sparse and the word is undefined. The new tests, like PARCC, are unlikely to put much pressure on schools to achieve a level of mastery that will keep all career doors open in K-8. Kids will still be pumped along, and the onus for keeping kids on track will still rest with parents. My advice to parents is to not trust the spiral. You have to ensure that your kids master the material the first time starting in the earliest grades. You have to ask the school when and how they track in math. You have to ensure that learning gets done to meet this tracking decision. You have to realize that "proficient" is not nearly good enough. Even "exceeding expectations" might not be good enough. Schools will talk about how wonderful it is that they get so many kids over a low cutoff proficiency level, but this is not very meaningful for individual students. Many parents quickly figure out that their standards have to be much higher that the state standards. Schools care about statistics, but parents care about individuals. What’s good for schools is not necessarily what’s good for your child.


concerned said...

Thanks for posting this notice!

Since we still have EM in many schools throughout the country, this warning should be posted a few times each year imho.

On another note, for those following K-12 math ed research, you might be interested to read that recently Jo Boaler claims to have been harrassed and persecuted when Jim Milgram, Paul Clopton, and Wayne Bishop scrutinized the quality of her widely cited research.


Lisa Jones
@proudmomom (on twitter)

Catherine Johnson said...

Thank you for writing this!!!!!

I'm putting a permanent link up on the "About" page.

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, done!

Catherine Johnson said...

You know what else we need (which I absolutely don't have time to do now .... )

We need a Core Post about working memory, memorization, and knowledge.

I wonder if I can quickly find some material from the precision teaching publications ....

Auntie Ann said...

It's not just EM and the spiral parents should be worried about.

Our 10 year old boy consistently brings home top marks on his homework (EM, but we're using Singapore at home), and solid A's on his tests. Yet last week he brought home an in-class assignment graded "72% - C."

The assignment was mathematically pathetic: divide a pie into eighths. He had no problem doing exactly that, but...

...this was a GROUP ASSIGNMENT, and several members of the group aren't good at math. So, his grade is being affected by the 3 others in his group.

We're meeting with the teacher next week to see if his "C" work in the group assignments (more are coming) is going to turn his A grades into B's.

concerned said...

I like Catherine's idea of a core post on working memory, memorization, and knowledge.

This article might be a good start:

BTW-I'm not an AFT member.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I would like to tell you how right you are. After dealing withstudents in 6-8grades and teaching both math and science, I find that over the years thegaps children have with math and science have grown exponentially. Our system continues down a failing path.

Granny-Guru said...

I have no idea what is going on in the schools as my children are grown and have children of their own. But, when my grandchildren visit, I usually tuck in either 10-minute science or 10-minute math activities that I write for weekly blog posts. I look for activities that use stuff you have around the house, are easy to do but demonstrate a profound principle - like using a banana to illustrate pi. Designed for grandparents, it it might be useful for parents too.