April 13, 2006

Education Journalism 101

In today's St. Paul Pioneer Press we have a good example of a gullible journalist uncritically buying the educrat party line. The article is entitled "Pawlenty's math instruction goal might not add up" followed ominously by "Educators unsure if algebra proposal can work in practice." Hopefully, you see where there is going already. Let's take it after the introductory blather.

This is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's dream classroom. In a plan first touted in last month's State of the State address, Pawlenty said he wants all eighth-graders to take Algebra 1 and high school students to pass Algebra 2 before graduation, a move he hopes will strengthen student math skills across Minnesota.

Seems like the governor has a reasonable enough plan. Taking algebra in eighth grade means finishing elementary mathematics by seventh grade. Easy enough. I know at least one elementary math program that can be completed by the end of sixth grade that has an excellent track record preparing almost any student for algebra who attends class regularly. This gives even the slacker educator an extra year to prepare students for algebra.

But educators say it's easier said than done.
Especially when you don't know how to do it in the first place.

More rigorous math instruction in middle school and high school years means boosting math instruction in elementary school. And that may mean more training for elementary teachers, whose education often is more focused on language arts than math.
A tacit admission that elementary math instruction isn't very good as it stands. And, apparently, it's being taught by teachers who aren't qualified to teach math. This explains the next paragraph.

Raising math expectations also means tackling math-anxiety issues with students — and possibly their parents.
You know who has has math anxiety issues? kids who haven't learned math very well. You know why kids don't learn math very well? Because they weren't taught math very well by their school.

And, parents seem to have math anxiety too. I'm not sure why parents' anxiety is even relevant. Parents send kids to school so math teachers, who presumably know math, can teach their kids math. I bet this is a set-up for soemthing ...

Inside her Apple Valley classroom, Hoffman said she doesn't know if it's feasible. To make it work, math teachers would need longer class periods, smaller class sizes and aides to help kids who are struggling. And parents would play a role, she said.
I knew it. The parents are somehow implicated in all this.

The underlying assumption is that they are doing the best they can already. And, the only way to improve is to 1. increase the time of math classes (at the expense of what?), 2. decrease class sizes (more money), 3. hire more aides (more money) , and 4. have parents play a role (foolish).

Of course, in practice none of these ideas has proven to reliably increase student achievement in the absence of effective math instruction. But, if you had effective math instruction in the first place, you wouldn't need any of these ideas to make it work (with the possible exception of more time for the lowest performers). Chicken and egg.

"The rigor has to start in the elementary schools and carry through to the middle schools or they will not be ready for algebra by eighth grade," Hoffman said. "And rigor includes studying at home and parental support. If this is going to fly, we need parents involved at home."

Students across the nation are falling behind when it comes to math and science, and many argue something has to be done to increase the rigor.
They have the kids over six hours a day, 180 days a year, and that's not enough to teach elementary math. Yet, parental support and involvement is still necessary. Sure, great if you can get it. But, the kids who need the most parental support are least likely to have parents who are able to provide effective support. That's why we send these kids to school in the first place, isn't it? Because their parents do not have the ability and/or are unwilling to teach them. The assumption going in should be that no parental support will be forthcoming. The instructional design should be premised on that.

Finally, where is the research that shows that parental support is a prerequisite to learning math? In fact, the research shows the opposite. Parental support isn't necessary. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Project Follow Through to find out that the best performing instructional program required no parental support and one of the worst peforming ones actually wasted good money trying to educate parents so they could provided better parental support. Look at the math scores in Table 2.

About one-third of students who graduate from Minnesota high schools and go on to public colleges and universities in the state must take some sort of remedial course in college. At the U, 99 percent of those students were enrolled in a developmental math class. At state colleges and universities, about 82 percent of those students were in math as well.
OMG. These are the college bound kids. Imagine how little the non-college bound kids learned.

"I don't want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture," Seagren said. "I think our kids have enough fundamental strength to bring them to the next level."

Sounds like "blame the student" to me. The kids choose whether they learn or not. It couldn't possibly be that the schools could somehow affect learning and lack thereof.

"It sounds like a middle school and high school issue, but it's really an elementary problem," said Hagelberger, a member of the board of directors for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "But in order for this to work, for students to take algebra in eighth grade, they need a rich foundation in math to be successful."
Yikes. I think I just agreed with the NCTM. I'm sure the NCTM means something a little different than what their saying. I'm thinking their definition of "rich foundation in math" probably means a something other than what I consider a rich foundation in math -- like learning math instead of learning about math.

"I think it's typical for elementary teachers to be language-oriented rather than math-oriented," said Rochester Superintendent Jerry Williams. "A big part of elementary education is teaching kids how to read, so that's natural."
I thought one of the three Rs included math. So, a big part of elementary education (a third, if the 3Rs are any guide) is supposed to have included math already. I wonder why it didn't? Could it be that they've been wasting a lot of time with equally bad reading programs and that not teaching kids how to read tends to be much more visible?

State officials and educators also say parents and community members need to get revved up about math and science. Seagren pointed out that despite the evidence that kids are falling behind in these subjects, many parents believe their kids are doing just fine.
Where'd they go and get an idea like that? Rampant grade inflation? Social promotion? Redefining math and reading to be something other than math and reading?

"I think, as a culture, we're math averse," Seagren said. "But now our world is changing.''
One of the down sides of not teaching math very well is that people start hating math.

Then the journalist asked a few kids what they thought:

Cory Patel was torn. He said if he has a good teacher and some additional help, he does well in math. But if he doesn't, it can be more difficult.

"I think it's fine where we are, but I guess upping the standards wouldn't be a bad thing," Patel said. "For us to take algebra, I think they need to condition us earlier so students are ready."

Little Corey got it right. Math isn't so hard as long as you're taught well.

Therese Harrah is in algebra this year and thinks about half her classmates could take the class. She also thinks there's a big fear of math out there that students could overcome by taking good notes, following directions and taking the problems one step at a time.

"People think it's really hard because of all the equations, variables and exponents," Therese said. "But as soon as you learn how to break down the solutions in different parts, it's not that hard."

Poor Therese has already bought the "blame the student" meme. It's the kids' fault they didn't do well. They need to take better notes, follow direction better and solve the problems systematically. Isn't this the teacher's job? To, you know, teach how to do this stuff?

Algebra really isn't very hard. So long as you've mastered elementary math. Then it's just a matter of "learn[ing] how to break down the solutions in different parts" according to little Therese. Of course, you learn how to do this by being taught how to do it. It's only hard if you're not taught how to do it well. And, if you're not taught it well, you can forget about calculus. And, if you can't do calculus well, then you can forget about a career in math, science, or engineering -- i.e., the high-paying careers.

This is one fine piece of journalism. Only interview players from one side for a nice biased self-serving view. (Though, kudos for throwing in the remediation rate stats.) You can always provide balance by interviewing a few kids too and see what they think.


Catherine Johnson said...

Inside her Apple Valley classroom, Hoffman said she doesn't know if it's feasible. To make it work, math teachers would need longer class periods, smaller class sizes and aides to help kids who are struggling. And parents would play a role, she said.

This kind of comment always gets to me.

It's the constant defeatism, the chronic negativity.

When your first thought about any challenge or change (leaving aside the fact that teaching math to grade school kids shouldn't be a challenge or a change) is 'don't see how I can do it' - somebody else should have your job.

No Can Do isn't what I want to hear.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was just linking to your post.....when I realized that, so far, I haven't spoken to a single parent of a high school kid who took AP calculus without having a parent who was expert in math, and often employed in a math-related field.

I'm going to keep asking around, but so far what I'm seeing is that kids who 'stay the course' in high school math have parents who can reteach and tutor at home.

And I do mean parents, not tutors.

Karen said...

I wanted to ask you about the Connecting Math math program you site as being good preparation for algebra. I clicked over to the website and the dearth of information regarding the program leaves me with more questions than answers. It sounded to me like they could be describing Saxon Math. Can you talk a bit, or point me to a discussion of, basically, what's so great about Connecting Math?

KDeRosa said...

Hi Karen

Here's a good description of CMC.

CMC is designed for classroom use. YOu absolutely need the teacher's materials to teach it since that's where the scripts are. It is very expensive through SRA, assuming they'll even sell it to you. Good luck trying to locate used copies of the teacher's materials also. Student materials are readily available though.

CMC, like Saxon, is a mastery learning program. I think CMC does it better and I think the research bears that out. Mastery learning is all about distributed practice and CMC has it down to a science. Saxon is a little clumsier and occaisonally overdoes the practice, especially during the beginning of the year review. Although, with higher performers it probably won't make a difference.

Having said that though, saxon does teach more concepts. Concepts that aren't critical to success in algebra but are nice to know -- stuff like roman numerals and the like.

If you're serious about teacahing/learning elementary math, I'd suggest using CMC for the basics and supplementing with Saxon and Singapore math to round out the course.

threrese h. said...

umm... excuse me?? i'm that "little therese". not kidding. i'm the girl in that article. i didn't say that it was the students fault, but, c'mon, not every 8th grade student is perfect! do you expect evry student to take perfect notes and always study for tests? no way! it's not the students fault, or the teachers. mary hoffman is a great teacher who actually got me to enjoy math. she works hard and loves her job. so it's not the teachers fault, and it's not entirely the parents fault either. it's a combination of all three. i don't pay attention in class, i get a poor grade. the teacher doesn't teach, i get a poor grade. the parents don't help or support, it affects my grade. so don't go around saying, "poor little therese got it wrong" when in fact you don't have YOUR story straight!

KDeRosa said...

Hi Therese

Shouldn't you be in school?

See here

therese h. said...

we start sept. 5

t.h. said...

i'm sorry. i didn't mean to sound pissed about this but it offended me that you posted this without even knowing the people in the article. mary hoffman is a dedicated teacher and, honestly, most of the people in my class do not take notes or complete any homework assignments.

KDeRosa said...

Being dedicated or hard working doesn't necessarily make one an effective teacher.

And, when you write "most of the people in my class do not take notes or complete any homework assignments" indicates to me that your teacher isn't being effective. It may not be her fault, mind you, but it seems to be the case that many kids in her class aren't learning.

Just because the kids aren't being attentive or engaged doesn't mean it's their fault either.

therese h. said...

you do have a point, but in this case, mrs. hoffman is a very effective teacher. many people who didn't take notes or finished assignments started to because of her strict yet interesting teaching method. but using the right study skills can be very hard to make into a habit. i do know of teachers that you describe, where, although they're dedicated and nice, they do not teach effectively at all.

t.h. said...

where do you teach? in minnesota?

KDeRosa said...

I am in Pennsylvania and I don't teach.

t.h. said...

how did you find this article?

KDeRosa said...

educationnews.org most likely

t.h. said...

ok well school starts the day after tommorrow, so i won't have time to post any more comments. it was nice to meet you.