Saturday, March 29, 2008

Back to Basics in Math, Fed. Advisory Panel Says

Elementary school mathematics instruction is the U.S. "is broken and must be fixed" according to the report released this week of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

According to an article in Education Week:

"The 90-page document calls for the math curriculum to be streamlined in pre-K-8, a strategy it calls putting 'first things first.' Students need to be grounded in both the effortless, automatic recall of simple procedures and in the acquisition of broader problem-solving skills. Too often, those skills are wrongly presented as incompatible, the report says....

The authors also identify a clear path to prepare students for introductory algebra and advanced math—the central charge given to the panel. Students should become proficient with whole numbers, fractions, and aspects of geometry and measurement in order to steel themselves for algebra, typically taught in the 8th or 9th grade, the report says."

Proponents of so-called "fuzzy math" quickly criticized the report. The director of the most recent edition of the infamous Everyday Mathematics textbook series blasted the focus on arithmetic and procedural math:

"You could read it as really wanting to narrow the school curriculum down to core arithmetic."

Oh, what a shame- kids would actually learn how to calculate quickly and correctly rather than waste time answering idiotic questions such as:

"A. If math were a color, it would be –, because –.
B. If it were a food, it would be –, because –.
C. If it were weather, it would be –, because –."

Another educrat, Jere Confrey of North Caroline State-Raleigh criticized the report for only reviewing studies with good methodology. Apparently much of the support for "fuzzy math" comes from "fuzzy" research (what a shocker!):

"Case studies and other research that do not meet the 'scientific evidence' standards used by the panel could provide valuable information on the true impact of math programs and interventions in the classroom, Ms. Confrey argued."

If the results of this research touted by Ms. Confrey are legitimate, then there should be no problem with subjecting them to more rigorous evaluation in follow-up studies. This happens all the time- a small pilot study followed up by a larger, better designed one if the initial results are positive.

According to the report:

"As in all fields of education, the large quantity of studies …on important topics in mathematics education is reduced appreciably once contemporary criteria for rigor and generalizability are applied. Government agencies should increase their support for research on math education, the report states, and emphasize stringent methodological criteria such as randomized controlled designs and methodologically rigorous quasi-experimental studies."

If education researchers want to have the same kind of credibility as other academics, they're going to need to apply the same high methodological standards as their colleagues in other disciplines.

I haven't gotten the chance yet to read the full report but it sounds like there are a lot of sensible recommendations in it!


Anonymous said...

This is exciting. I find so many adults limited by their lack of math skills.

cnsdr said...

simple solutions by simple is so convenient to quote out of context. Let's have some honest, integral discussion.

cnsdr said...

Yes. Many adults are limited because the expectations of them were limited. Most parents wouldn't tolerate raising expectations. They would have to find something else to blame than programs. If raising achievement levels were as easy as using Saxon or Singapore or some other teacher proof mindless text it would have been done. Let's get serious about solutions and consider the complexities.

Crimson Wife said...

cnsdr- do you even know anything about Singapore Math? Saxon may be all scripted lessons, repetition, and "drill-and-kill" but SM is not. One of the big criticisms of SM in homeschooling circles is that it's hard to teach unless the parent has a really strong background in the subject.

The math program I use in our homeschool, Right Start Math , is based on the Asian way of teaching math like SM but I find it a lot more user-friendly.

There's nothing wrong with teaching higher-order concepts in math, but those shouldn't come at the expense of teaching basic arithmetic. Kids need to learn traditional algorithms and not just rely on the crutch of electronic calculators such as the Everyday Math and TERC programs promote.