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Opinion

Sat., Dec. 4, 2010

Math ‘reform’ fails our kids

Are we wasting money teaching math to our students? Not as in: We shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Rather, as in: We are spending the money but not teaching them anything.

For Spokane Public Schools, at least, the answer is yes. The proof is in the test scores. In the 2010 statewide proficiency test given to 10th-graders, less than 40 percent of Spokane Public Schools’ students passed. The district apparently didn’t expect much of them; they put the passing grade at only about 57 percent – itself a level generally considered failing on most tests. So, over 60 percent of Spokane’s 10th-graders failed to even get a failing grade.

As Spokane’s students leave high school, this deficiency in mathematics hampers their college careers. Nearly all of Spokane’s students enrolling at our two local community colleges must take remedial math there, math they should have mastered in high school.

I find these numbers appalling.

I am surprised there isn’t a massive hue and cry being raised over this. If I were a parent, I would be outraged at how our school system was failing my children. I speak simply as a community resident who is concerned about how we are educating our young people. And I am irritated at how poorly our tax money is being used in this regard.

So, what’s the cause? One sometimes hears complaints about the teachers themselves; but while there may well be occasional teachers weak in the subject, placing blame on the teaching staff overall implies that across all of the district’s schools, throughout all of the grade range, there is hardly a decent one out there. This is patently ridiculous. Rather, the most likely cause, in the eyes of those observing it most closely, is the curriculum the district has chosen for teaching math.

The curriculum adopted by the district is of the type often described as “reform” or “discovery.” The philosophy underlying this style is that students will discover much of what they need to know themselves, without the need for actually learning anything about handling numbers (i.e., like long division). It is big on students working nicely together in groups, and big on the use of calculators (since they can’t handle numbers in the first place). This style of curriculum has been roundly criticized by mathematicians and university math educators alike as ineffective and even harmful to students’ ability to master math. But it has been the darling of the primary/secondary education establishment, and our local education administration seems enamored with it.

This problem is recognized by some in our community, who are calling attention to it loudly and clearly. They are, however, a smallish number, small enough that they seem to be easily ignored by the local education establishment.

So, what to do? Two things, for starters.

One is to change the curriculum to the type sometimes referred to as “instructional.” As in, the teacher actually teaches and the students learn. They learn the principles and the skills.

The principal feature that distinguishes this type of curriculum from the discovery variety is that with it, students actually learn their math. And test scores show it. Around the country, students in districts that use instructional curricula typically score much higher than those suffering under the discovery variety.

Number two might be a little surprising: music. While it has long been felt that active involvement in music helps students achieve academically, recent large-scale studies have been showing just that with actual test grades. Music seems to help train the mind and thinking processes to facilitate better performance in mathematics. The longer students stay involved in music, the more pronounced the effect. And it appears highly effective not only for the stronger students, but even more so for the weaker ones.

Music may help to compensate for an otherwise poor curriculum, such as that used in the Spokane schools. Think of it as something like a booster for a radio receiver, to enable it to better receive a weak signal.

However, that signal shouldn’t be allowed to remain weak; it should be strengthened, with a decent curriculum. And it should be bolstered with a strong music involvement (for those so inclined), either in school or privately, to further support the mathematics proficiency of our students.

Then perhaps we won’t be wasting our money teaching our kids math.

John Barber, a 1960 graduate of Shadle Park High School, is a retired mechanical engineer.


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