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As Long as We Remember...

February 17, 2009

Reform Indeed; Improvement Missing

Nick Diaz

Owen Thomas had it right when he said: "Mathematics is characterized by its intolerance of nonsense."


Millions and billions have been poured into thousands of school systems around the country in the last 20 years; even so, much of it has essentially failed to make a difference in the quality of mathematics education. Programs had become so bogged down by politics and bureaucracy that they have failed to create any significant change.


Am I surprised? Not really.


How did I know this would be the result of well-intentioned efforts by governments, foundations, citizens’ groups? Easy. There has never been an innovation or reform that has helped children learn any better, faster or easier than they did prior to the 20th century. I believe a case could be made that real learning was better served then than now.


Let me quote Theodore Sizer, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which received some of the grant money. A few years ago a reporter asked him if he could name a single “reform” in the last 15 years that had been successful. Sizer replied, “I don’t think there is one.”


I taught in the Frederick County Public School system for 30 years. While I was there, I participated in team-teaching and peer-tutoring programs, and tussled with curricular and scheduling plans. Very little of it ever made a discernible difference in students’ performance. We had changed everything but the level of student performance.


What baffles me is not that educators implement new policies intended to help kids perform better; it’s that they don’t learn from others’ mistakes. A few years ago I read about a California middle school whose staff sought a fresh teaching plan for their new charter school and chose the team-teaching model. Meanwhile, a few miles away, another middle school was in the process of abandoning that same model because it hadn’t had any effect on students’ grades.


In my admittedly traditional, Neanderthal view, we need to return to the method that’s most effective: A teacher in front of a chalkboard and a roomful of willing students. The old way is the best way. We have it from no less a figure than Euclid himself.


When Ptolemy I, the king of Egypt, said he wanted to learn geometry, Euclid explained that he would have to study long hours and memorize the contents of a fat math book. The monarch complained that that would be unseemly and demanded a shortcut. Euclid replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”


There wasn’t a shortcut to the learning process then and there still isn’t. Reform movements like “new” math, TERC “investigations,” and whole language have left, and are leaving, millions of damaged kids in their wake. For instance, TERC has redefined the meaning of “think mathematically” and painted a false picture of elementary mathematics. It’s all very hard to believe, but it's sadly true.


Math is a vertically-structured knowledge domain. Learning more advanced math isn't possible without first mastering traditional pencil-and-paper arithmetic. This truth is clearly demonstrated by the shallow details of the TERC fifth grade program. Their most advanced "Investigations" offer probability without multiplying fractions, statistics without the arithmetic mean, solid geometry without formulas for volume, and number theory without prime numbers.


We have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and forced our teachers to spend countless hours in workshops learning to implement the latest fads. Every minute teachers have spent on misguided educational strategies (like building kids’ self-esteem by acting as “facilitators” who oversee group projects) is time they could have been teaching academics.


The only way to truly foster confidence in our students is to give them real skills – in reading, writing and arithmetic – that they can be proud of. One model that incorporates this idea is direct instruction, a program that promotes rigorous, highly scripted interaction between teacher and students.


“A teacher should be the sage on the stage,” says well-known Virginia master teacher Vern Williams. “Students expect their teacher to provide them with something that perhaps they can't learn or do on their own. Our job as teachers is to stand in front of them and offer our wisdom, experiences, and our in-depth knowledge of content. Yes, when they are in my classroom, I am the center of their universe because I actually have something to offer them.”


The physicist Stephen Hawking says we can be sure time travel is impossible because we never see any visitors from the future. We can apply that same logic to the subject of school reforms: We know they have not succeeded because we haven’t seen positive results; however, knowing that isn’t enough. We should stop using students as lab rats and return to a more traditional method of teaching. If it was good enough for Euclid, it is good enough for us.


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