Math instruction is headed in wrong direction — again

I write not to criticize fellow teachers, but to sympathize. We who teach must yield to educrats who determine policy. Thus we read in your front page story "Does this add up?" (Feb 16) a statement from the Oregon Education Department: "We don't control the funding ... What we do control is setting standards for educational success ... It is a challenging time for schools to make changes ... (but) ... We need to do what's good for kids."

Debbie Connolly, Medford schools curriculum supervisor, described the challenge. "You continue to work hard ... and find ways to help students, but this triple whammy — new standards tested, new cut scores (the requirement that 70 percent pass), less money and higher class sizes — it almost feels like they're setting you up for failure."

One culprit is the federal No Child Left Behind mandate from the Bush era; clearly recognized for its manifold failures to improve student achievement, it remains the law of the land. An example is Howard Elementary School being labeled a failure because it did not reach Annual Yearly Progress for three years. In fact, Howard's students all met the required math scores except for a few special education students. No Child Left Behind gives no recognition for excellence nor allowances for special needs students.

Another culprit is the Oregon Department of Education's arbitrarily raising the math scores that distinguish success from failure, even as budget conditions directly affecting classrooms worsen. What kind of fuzzy thinking ignores the financial crisis faced by local school districts and proclaims, "We need to do what's good for kids"? Who within the Oregon education department has first-hand experience teaching math, successfully, over the past few decades?

My career began in 1964 and continued through 1996, with several time-outs to raise children and earn a law degree. I taught math for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools that included grades seven to twelve. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics promoted experimental policies to make math more user-friendly for children who struggled.

The Los Angeles Times published my OpEd "Dumbing Down Our Schools" in February 1996. I described my personal experiences teaching rigorous pre-algebra and algebra I, and my frustrations. Here is an excerpt:

"I have had highly gifted, shy seventh-graders mixed together with remedial ninth- and 10th-graders who greatly enjoyed disrupting the algebra class. But at least we had decent textbooks. Then, a few years ago, our school received permission to put remedial math students into special classes, thus enabling regular Algebra I classes to better move forward.

"But California's elementary schools were being subjected to radical changes: Since many young children experienced difficulty mastering basic skills like multiplication, fractions, formulas, algorithms and equations, the state decided that mastery of those skills was no longer necessary.

"Elementary students began playing with brightly colored plastic pieces, practicing 'guess and check' problem-solving and engaging in cooperative "fuzzy math." These changes are now working their way into the middle and upper grade levels. My math department has seen the future, and it is frightening."

Imagine my reaction seeing young children playing with brightly colored plastic pieces on the front page of the Mail Tribune. Even as my op-ed was published in 1996, those learning strategies were losing favor. Teachers of algebra and geometry nationwide were speaking out against the fuzzy, discovery math as students entered higher level classes with no solid foundation in math. In pre-algebra classes 20 years ago, I distributed my one class set of old but content-rich textbooks to each class weekly, so students could practice necessary skills and concepts. Discovery math was discredited, yet here it comes again.

How did the Medford School District choose Bridges Math as its strategy for improving students' math scores? Publishers' representatives can make powerful presentations promoting their product. Educators hope "new and improved" will outweigh memories of "playful" learning programs that failed. Were algebra and geometry teachers involved in the selection process? The cost of all new learning materials is high at a time when resources are scarce. Clearly classroom teachers have a strong interest in making Bridges Math succeed; many are devoting more classroom time to that goal.

I would respectfully suggest they use their extra math time to supplement the "discovery" approach with properly sequenced practice of skills and concepts so vital to success. Practice does lead to confidence and competence, and is essential to mastering a cumulative subject like math.

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught math for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools. She served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.

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