kitchen table math, the sequel: Does anyone remember the math wars?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Does anyone remember the math wars?

The New York Times is out with yet another entry on the failure of traditional teachers to teach math to Americans:
My hunch is that how we learn math in America has very little to do with best practices and a lot to do with how teachers remember learning math when they were children.
Can you spell Weltanschauung?

Free advice: Never trust a "hunch" when your hunch is identical in every respect with the worldview of a Most Emailed story in the New York Times.

If your hunch is identical in every respect with the worldview of a Most Emailed story in the New York Times, it's not a hunch. It's conventional wisdom and nobody needs to hear it again.

Contra Elizabeth Green, we do not have to accept that the traditional approach we take to teaching math — the one that can be mind-numbing, but also comfortingly familiar — does not work. It should be obvious to anyone who actually looked at our history that "the traditional approach to teaching math" worked perfectly well for many American students.

Here's Barry Garelick:
From the 1940′s to the mid 1960′s, at a time when math and other subjects were taught in the traditional manner, scores in all subjects on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills increased steadily. From 1965 to the mid-70′s there was a dramatic decline, and then scores increased again until 1990 when they reached an all-time high. Scores stayed relatively stable in the 90′s.

The decline in SAT scores doesn't fit the narrative, either.

Do we know when state legislatures passed laws requiring teachers to have degrees in education?

I'm trying to track that down.

Speaking of the math wars, it's been a couple of decades now since the NCTM, an organization whose membership consists almost entirely of public school math teachers, accepted that the traditional approach we take to teaching math does not work.

Chris is turning 20. Neither he nor any of his peers learned their math facts at school.


Anonymous said...

We have "my hunch" on one side vs "Well, traditional math worked for me!" on the other. Why not try controlled trial evaluations to see what actually works? Of course, we already did that with Project Follow through but nobody wanted to accept its conclusions.


SteveH said...

Is this the best that journalists can do?

Green says:

"At Chalkbeat, we believe that great journalism, purposefully practiced, can make a big difference. By great journalism, we mean thorough, knowledgeable, and contextualized reporting that helps people make the decisions they need to improve our world."

Would she be happy if adults could tell the difference between 1/4 and 1/3?

What, exactly, is the problem; that adults, in general, don't like or do math at that level? Is this really just a lack of engagement or understanding?

Does Richards even have a clue about what's been going on in schools in the last 20+ years?

So, what do they have to say about STEM preparation? Nobody is talking about STEM prep anymore except in general terms. CC is not STEM prep in lower grades and schools now expect students to take summer classes or double up in high school to get there.

These bad analyses are not just in blogs by anyone. They are in national publications. The assumption seems to be that "smart people" know what's best and not individuals. This is not just about advising people about which school to choose, but deciding for them. We need a declaration of independence for education. Clearly, the aristocracy is neither smart nor benevolent.

Anonymous said...

"Neither he nor any of his peers learned their math facts at school."

I wonder if anybody does.

I was think more of reading than math, but I've often asked people I know to be good readers (people who buy serious books or get them from the library on a regular basis) and all of them have told me they were taught to read by their parents before starting school. Which was my own experience.

I remember when I started school that 25-30% of the other kids also were reading pretty well already. Furthermore, the other 70-75% never did seem to get it. When called upon to read aloud, they always read hesitantly, slowly, without expression, always struggling with every word.

Other people have told me their school experience was similar.

So ... does anybody really learn this stuff in school?

Hainish said...

Anonymous, Yes, I learned to read in school. (I suspect your sample is biased by class/culture.)

In the early 1980s, I learned to read via, starting in 1st grade, phonics. We learned sounds for letters and letter combinations, drilled(!), combined sounds/letters, and practiced spellings of irregular words.

(My parents could not have taught me to read, even if they wanted to, because they are not English speakers.)

Anonymous said...

I learned to read in school. By the time I was 4 there were 3 younger kids in the family and I was barely bathed and fed, much less read to. But we were a middle class family with books and newspapers around, and I knew that reading was important. My parents did talk to us a lot as they went about their work, in the way that today's education researchers are recommending be taught to parents of disadvantaged children.

And by the way, this was the '50's -- there was no reading instruction in Kindergarten; this reading thing didn't happen until first grade.

momof4 said...

When I started first grade, in the 50s, no kids had been to either preschool or kindergarten because there were none in town, either public or private. We were explicitly taught phonics, grammar and arithmetic and time was used in class for drilling math facts. Those kids who needed extra work were expected to work outside of school, too - particularly after most kids had mastered them. I was the only kid who read before first grade (and I was never taught), although most kids knew letters and their names.

The math part was also pretty much true when my kids went through. I can remember being asked to stay a few minutes after my non-academic volunteer activity outside my second-grader's class, in order to drill add/subtract facts with the couple of kids who didn't already know them. Until most kids had learned, the first grade and early second grade did pair up to do flashcard practice (one appropriate use of paired work).

momof4 said...

My doing flashcard drills would have been in 1990-91.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I learned to read in school as well -- phonics in kindergarten and first grade, some "real" reading in first grade as well, and then more seriously in second grade. I was never much into flashcards, but I loved phonics. I wasn't the best reader or the fastest learner, and I certainly struggled my way through my first couple of books. But I grew up in a community that placed an exceptional premium on literacy, made regular trips to the library, and got read to a lot. Interestingly, I don't ever recall anyone worrying about the fact that I wasn't a superstar reader at age five (even though my favorite word at that age was, as I recall, "melancholy"). I certainly made up for it later on, but I can't imagine what would happen to me nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Parents simply can't count on schools to do their job. It's not the end of the world if kids forget when the Magna Carta was signed but they absolutely have to know how to read.