kitchen table math, the sequel: wrong, again

Monday, September 17, 2007

wrong, again

I'm reading part two of Dave Marain's interview with Lynn Arthur Steen.

It's terrifically interesting, and, to me, helpful (more later).

But first I have to object:

Here’s an innocent little question, Prof. Steen! The current conflicts in mathematics education are usually referred to as the Math Wars. In your opinion, what were the major contributing factors in spawning this conflict and how would you resolve it?

There are many factors involved. I think I can identify a few, but I have no confidence that I could resolve any of them.

One is the natural tendency of parents to want their children to go through the same education that they received—even when, as often is the case with mathematics, they admit that it was a painful and unsuccessful ordeal. This makes many parents critical of any change, most especially if it introduces approaches that they do not understand and which therefore leaves them unable to help their children with homework.

When, oh when, will experts take an oath to offer expert opinion only on subjects in which they actually possess expertise?

A rhetorical question, I know; the answer is never.

number one: I have never, in my life, ever, heard a parent say, "I want my child to have the same superb math education I had as a kid." Not unless that parent attended Dalton or the public schools of Levittown, PA. And even in the case of the public schools of Levittown, PA, I haven't heard it.*

I personally had a lousy math education, though I did master the basics of arithmetic, including fractions, decimals, and percent, which is more than I can say for the results of my son's lousy math education. Here in middle age I am spending countless hours attempting to remediate my own lousy math education at the same time I'm attempting to remediate the train wreck that is math ed in a 21st century U.S. public middle school.

I would hazard a guess that, within living memory, U.S. public school math education has been one, long, drawn-out, multi-generational saga of lousiness, generally speaking.

number two: Lynn Arthur Steen is not, to my knowledge, a Trained Psychologist.

Nor am I, but I am a Trained Psychology Writer, and as such I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as a "natural tendency of parents to want their children to go through the same education that they received."

There is especially no such thing as a natural tendency for parents to want their kids to go through they same "painful and unsuccessful ordeal" they went through themselves.

If there is a natural tendency at work, it would be a natural tendency of parents to want to protect their children from the painful and unsuccessful ordeals of their own childhoods.

Take me, for example.

I took three years of "high school math."

Now that I'm teaching myself high school algebra, I discover that those 3 years of math were equivalent to perhaps 1 1/2 years of Saxon Math.

That royally ticks me off, lo these many years down the line. Which may have something to do with the betrayal I continue to feel over the fact that my child's "high performing" school tracked my kid out of calculus in high school when he was age 8 without bothering to inform his father and me.

number three: I'm ready for some hard data on the painful and unsuccessful math ordeal we parents are supposed to have suffered as young'uns. How many of us are we talking about here?

How painful?

How unsuccessful?

In 13 years of public schooling, I learned arithmetic, a bit of algebra, and some geometry.

Maybe I'm an outlier, but my school would have had to throw a couple of conic sections and some calculus in there to make it hurt.

* If Lynn Arthur Steen is interested in what actual living, breathing parents have to say about their own math education, it can be summed up in the oft-repeated observation that, "My parents never helped with homework." NOTE: Let me add that Barry Garelick is, even now, developing a far more interesting -- and more nuanced! -- take on this question than anything I've got.


Tracy W said...

My mum was heartily determined that I never be put forward a class in maths like she was. She blames that for her eventual failure of School Certificate maths (an exam that was taken at age 15).

My father did great at maths at school (and at uni), but was quite angry about the 7th form (final year of high school) teacher he had who just gave them some old exams and answers and left them to get on with it.

I don't think that Lynn's theory applies to my parents either.

Catherine Johnson said...

Basically "parents" are just a character in a play written by, and starring, pundits & policy analysts.

Catherine Johnson said...

Same deal with "the middle class voter."

concernedCTparent said...

Or the "soccer moms."

Anonymous said...

what, no "helicopter parents"?

Anonymous said...

Chalk up one anecdote here for a parent that wants his child to get a math education *SUPERIOR* to what he had growing up (even though that was pretty good). If my kid learns only as much math as I did, I'll be disappointed.

And no, the goal isn't for it to be an ordeal. The goal also isn't for it to be "the same education they received". If I ran into this claim at work, I'd be asking for the source of the claim. I suspect that there isn't one...

-Mark R.

Catherine Johnson said...

Good point, anonymous!

Where are the helicopters?

Anonymous said...

LOL. I must be the exception to prove the rule. I went to school in Levittown, but Levittown, New York, not Levittown PA.

And I wish upon the starts my kids could have the terrific math education I had in Levittown, New York. I graduated in 1975 with a love for math. Those teachers of mine really loved math.

Anonymous said...

I was born in Levittown, NY, but my family moved when I was eight -- to a small (think 2nd & 3rd grade were in the same room) town in the Missouri Ozarks.

My "math" (and science) teachers were also the Jr. High sports coaches.

Quite frankly, I don't think *either* of them knew any more math than *I* did (as a 7th grader) at the time.

So, I'm struggling with teaching myself math while trying to assure that *my* 7th grader in the Olathe, KS school district is receiving an adequate math education.

That is an --extremely-- hard thing for a math-ignorant parent to do.

I'm new to this blog, and noted some posts regarding KS/MO math curriculum issues. I clicked several times on 'profile' info, but couldn't determine anything regarding the blog authors' whereabouts/backgrounds.

My email is

I would really like to know if any of the posters of this site are in the Olathe (or Kansas City area) school district(s), and if there is an organized body of parents concerned about the curriculum in this area.

Thanks much for any responses!

Also, sorry for the long post, but does anyone have any knowledge of the Duke University Talent Identification Program? I haven't searched the internet yet, but will; am also interested in any personal experience with this: Is it a worthwhile program?