Teaching math is not a priority

Sixth-grade math scores are declining steadily in Newton, Massachusetts. The district can’t explain why. A commentator, Tom Mountain, suggests the new curriculum, known as anti-racist multicultural math, isn’t teaching math.

Between 1999 and 2001, under the direction of Superintendent Young and Assistant Superintendent Wyatt, the math curriculum was redesigned to emphasize “Newton’s commitment to active anti-racist education” for the elementary and middle schools. This meant that no longer were division, multiplication, fractions and decimals the first priority for teaching math.

. . . In 2001 Mr. Young, Mrs. Wyatt and an assortment of other well-paid school administrators, defined the new number-one priority for teaching mathematics, as documented in the curriculum benchmarks, “Respect for Human Differences – students will live out the system wide core of ‘Respect for Human Differences’ by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors.” It continues, “Students will: Consistently analyze their experiences and the curriculum for bias and discrimination; Take effective anti-bias action when bias or discrimination is identified; Work with people of different backgrounds and tell how the experience affected them; Demonstrate how their membership in different groups has advantages and disadvantages that affect how they see the world and the way they are perceived by others…”

If I wanted to keep poor, minority kids at the bottom of the social and educational ladder, I could find no better way than to devote class time to teaching them to see prejudice everywhere, rather than teaching them to add, multiply and find the common denominator.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Please, someone tell me this is a joke. No school official is this big of a MORON. Tell me how can math be racist????????????? It’s math! I don’t care what race or culture you are math is math!

    I hope someone helps these kids soon before permanent damage is done. If any of these kids have any thoughts about becoming a engineer or scientist they will not be able to take the tough math classes in high school they will need.

  2. You’re way too late Jeff_H. Somebody has already dreamed it up, written it, applied it, and now the kids are already suffering from it.

    Here’s something a bit off topic: My husband had to take an exam today called the HOBET (Health Occupation Basic Exam Test or something) and it had the weirdest question on it. [45.6 : 80%] I have no idea what this is. I’ve never seen this format used as a computational function. There were no words at all. Would somebody clue us in to this?

  3. Dave Harrison, TypeKey victim, writes:

    Newton is a very wealthy suburb of Boston. It does not have a large minority population, although it does accept minority students from Boston through a voluntary program called Metco.

    So I don’t think it is a wrong-headed idea that has a detrimental impact on poor, minority kids; It’s a wrong-headed idea that has a detrimental impact on wealthy, largely white, upper middle class kids.

  4. A question to anyone who might know. Does anyone talk with math professors and others who use math such as engineers, physicists, architects, etc. before they write this trash? I mean who dreams this stuff up?

    I spent 15 years as an aerospace engineer before I went on to teach high school physics and introduction to engineering. If asked I would have told them this program would produce math illiterates incapable of preparing for jobs in engineering, etc.

    I tell my students in physics and engineering that while we use math extensively I do not have time to teach basics, I expect them to have a solid grounding in math up through algebra, geometry and trig so that we can actually learn the physics/engineering. If I had to spend time teaching the math they need I coulc not actually teach the physics/engineering.

    This sort of thing scares me and makes me mad at the same time. Scared for the future of these kids and our country’s ability to compete in science and technology and mad that whoever is implementing this is using these kids as test subjects in their experiments

  5. Jeff_H wrote:

    >”Does anyone talk with math professors and others who use math such as engineers, physicists, architects, etc. before they write this trash? I mean who dreams this stuff up?”

    No. Ed school graduates who know very little math, but know ALL about developmentally appropriate ideas.

    From the Newton, MA schools web site (www.newton.mec.edu):

    In the curriculum section:

    For K-4, they use Everyday Math
    For 5,6, they use CMP (mostly, as far as I can tell)
    For 7,8, they split up the kids based on ability and use a variety of texts.

    This is classic NCTM math. EM followed by CMP is now a very common combination. These math programs set low and fuzzy expectations and don’t cover much needed material, but some schools have sense enough to supplement them and define grade-by-grade expectations. Even with the supplements, there are other Math programs that are much better, like Singapore Math. There are worse ones, however, like MathLand. My opinion is that you cannot blame the curriculum as much as you can blame its implementation and their fundamental educational philosophy

    From their web site, I have the following from their Curriculum section:

    —-
    Core Values:

    Respect for Human Differences
    The Newton Public Schools will provide a climate that actively promotes social justice where children perform at the highest levels. To that end, the Newton Public Schools will work:

    to provide–and be self-reflective about–authentic, effective, challenging and creative instruction that is responsive to different learning styles and improves student achievement. Respect for human differences places the learner at the center of the teaching and learning and fashions instruction that builds upon the learner’s unique strengths and addresses his/her needs;

    to encourage the broadest understanding and acceptance of human differences (including differences in socio-economic class, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, language, learning styles, special needs, physical appearance, sexual orientation, etc.) while affirming fundamental similarities of the human community;

    Standards-Based Curriculum Overview
    Standards-Based Curriculum in the Newton Public Schools means that:

    Expectations for learning are high for ALL students and developmentally appropriate. Standards guide all classroom decisions in our full inclusion school system. The focus is always on student learning – it is multicultural and actively anti-racist. Effective instructional practices result in higher levels of achievement for all students. Assessment outcomes are used to inform the teacher about the effectiveness of curricular and instructional decisions.

    This sounds just like the usual Ed School happy talk in my town. All of this translates to full-inclusion, spiraling, developmentally appropriate, low expectation teaching. Notice the talk of “Standards-Based Curriculum”. That is supposed to make you feel good. Unfortunately, this means the very low standards as represented by the MCAS test. And, they even have trouble meeting this minimal standard. Our town does a little bit better in meeting the state’s low expectations. We have “high performing” schools in spite of the fact that they use MathLand. Remember that comparatively good might translate to absolutely bad.

    I don’t see racism issues/teaching as the main problem. The problem is their overall educational philosophy and the idea of full-inclusion (as mentioned above) where kids of a very wide academic range of ability are taught together as equals. I though I read somewhere that Newton has an IEP student percentage of 25 percent or more. This is the same as in our affluent community. The IEP parents are very active and vocal. To implement full-inclusion, however, requires that they set low and fuzzy expectations and use spiraling of the curriculum. For example, EM is built around repeated grade-by-grade coverage of the same material. If you don’t understand the material in one grade, that’s OK, because you will see it again in the next. Spiraling, developmentally appropriate, and social promotion go hand in hand in hand with low expectations.

  6. This is a bit off topic, but I was shocked to learn that in Kansas, “proficiency” (under NCLB-required definitions) equals 38% in math and 51% in reading.

    Our local school district is forever touting that it has attained X percentage of “proficiency,” but they became very terse when I asked them the standard for proficiency.

    38%?? Isn’t that below failing?!!

    (And ours is considered a very good school district. And I understand the deficiencies in NCLB, i.e., sub-groups can have a negative impact that doesn’t represent overall teaching accomplishment. But still — as a parent, I am dismayed. Setting 38% as a benchmark is worse than useless.)

  7. I’m sure that “Mike in Texas” can explain to those of us baffled by this program why this is a more developmentally sound approach than a curriculum that makes sense to mathematicians and engineers. (He tried to explain something like this on an earlier thread, but I’m too stupid to understand what he was driving at. I am, however, smart enough to make sure that my kids learn developmentally inappropriate, racist, Eurocentric math…)

  8. Hardlyb,

    From what I could understand of MiT’s position in that debate, he thinks that educators who specialize in child development are the most qualified to write the state frameworks.

    If I were to set out to write K-12 frameworks, I would go to the experts in the field, e.g. mathemeticians and scientists for math, to find out what the kids needed to know by the end of grade 12 to be prepared for college-level math and science courses. I would then have them write a grade by grade framework. I would then ask the child-development experts if the program is properly paced. They could change the timing of the curriculum, but not the order or content, which have been (and should be) determined by experts in the field.

    In any case, the fact that these math standards (or the quoted parts at least) place math below being against racism and bias is reprehensible. They are MATH standards. They should focus on MATH, not fighting racism and bias. (A painfully obvious point I know, but I have to say it anyway.)

    In fact, I’d like to know what their definitions of racism and bias are. Do these educators believe that a minority person can be racist towards a white person, or merely that only white people can be racist towards minorities? Do they espouse that being of a race makes one responsible for the conduct of the race as a whole? Sadly, I think I already know the answers…

  9. Tim from Texas says:

    It’s false to go on and on about wanting a stiff traditional math curriculum, or any subject curriculum that is difficult, which our school systems have never had, because if such a system came into being, other types of good schools, such as good vocational schools would have to follow. Not everyone would be able to have the belief that they could go to a real university. Good vocational schools would make a niche for those who don’t deserve a niche. Moreover, in such a hard system of attrition many of those who believe their children have the right to go to a real university wouldn’t cut the mustard. Then it would take more than just money to get into one. Then, the screaming and yelling would ensue. Are there any engineers, professors, doctors, etc. out there who would like it, or heaven forbid, stand for it, if his or her child didn’t make the cut, and were tracked downward? I don’t think so. This is how and why the so called fuzzy math got and continues to have traction. The so called fuzzy math is an attempt to bring the element up to or close to snuff, which the old unfussy way didn’t accomplish.

    Are we ready for a strict system of attrition via a strict bell curve evaluation of students? Again I don’t think so.

  10. I don’t know about that, Tim. I’ve got a Masters degree in math, and I would be pretty happy if my child went to a vocational school… especially if she learned carpentry or electrical work. Be right useful info to have, and it seems to me that learning a trade that can’t be outsourced is a good idea.

    But then you’re assuming that innumerates would be able to finish a course in carpentry or electrical work… and sorry, they need to at least understand arithmetic and fractions, though algebra probably wouldn’t come into play. And you’re also assuming that the trades are a step downward from… I dunno… literary criticism? Hmmm, don’t quite agree. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a step down from engineering, if it’s rigorous. VoTech ain’t flipping burgers at McDonald’s or ringing up sales at WalMart, you know. People can flunk out of VoTech, too.

    But I’m not a subscriber to the “college for all” concept, and I sure as hell don’t believe in “calculus for all”. And having gone to an engineering school, I know plenty of dumb “smart” people, so credentialing doesn’t impress me that much, either.

    Anyway, it’s better that all learn arithmetic properly, and then some learn higher math properly (while others do something else) rather than no one learn any of it properly.

  11. “In any case, the fact that these math standards (or the quoted parts at least) place math below being against racism and bias is reprehensible”

    Adrian,
    Most of the quoted pieces actually come from Newton’s History & Social Sudies curriculum benchmarks. The math curriculum statements seem to place priority on learning mathematics.

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    Meep, I don’t think vocations are a step downward at all. I do think, however, that many would be able to make it through good voc-trade schools.

    Now, as to learning arithmetic properly, I think, if students learn to problem solve, via a curriculum which is not deemed proper, so what.

    Now, as an aside here, Singapore Math works because it reflects and fits the society it emerged from. Singapore citizens consider homelessness and hunger an affront to their society and take care of it. The idea that Singapore math could somehow fix what ails us (mathematically and societally) is wrong thinking.

  13. Steve LaBonne says:

    “The idea that Singapore math could somehow fix what ails us (mathematically and societally) is wrong thinking.” Socially, of course; what does that non sequitur have to do with the price of eggs? Mathematically, stuff and nonsense. Singapore is a very solid, straightforward curricum that will work well in any situation where somebody actually wants to teach math instead of fooling around with the latest ed-school nostrum. There is even an Americanized version now available if anyone is using the excuse of being afriad to confuse the little dears with exotic names, untis of measure and money, and foodstuffs.

  14. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    I think this is one of the signs of the apocalypse but I wholly and completely agree with Steve.

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What a horrible thing to do to those poor children.

  16. Adrian wrote:

    >”If I were to set out to write K-12 frameworks, I would go to the experts in the field, e.g. mathemeticians and scientists for math, to find out what the kids needed to know by the end of grade 12 to be prepared for college-level math and science courses. I would then have them write a grade by grade framework.”

    One might expect this, but it doesn’t happen. Math, especially, is cumulative and skill-based and this backwards analysis is required. I have also noticed a big gap between the curricula of grades K-8 and high schools. High schools allow choice in tracks and they have teachers who have degrees in their subject areas. They also have to be concerned with preparing kids for the SAT and AP courses. They have tangible, external targets and feedback.

    Grades K-8 are a different world and there is little curriculum discussion back and forth with the high school. I have commented in the past how there is a math knowledge and skills gap in our schools between 8th grade and high school. Only those kids who get outside help (at home or Kumon, etc.) will be properly prelared for college prep high school math. The rest will just assume that they don’t like math or are just not good at math. K-8 curricula seems to be based on developmentally appropriate and full-inclusion philosophies and not concerned with meeting hard and fixed content and skills goals. I can hear the doors slamming.

    TfT wrote:

    >”It’s false to go on and on about wanting a stiff traditional math curriculum, or any subject curriculum that is difficult, which our school systems have never had, because if such a system came into being, other types of good schools, such as good vocational schools would have to follow.”

    Who ever said that “traditional” math or the old way was perfect? This talk is the usual means for justifying all of the fuzzy and low expectation NCTM math. It goes something like this. “Many kids did not do well in math in the old days, so we need to change everything and do it our way.” Of course, this conveniently covers over the vast opinion-based, pedagogical changes in what math is taught and how it is taught. It also covers up the reduction of content and skills that are taught.

    Math is not “difficult” in grades K-8. It is also not difficult to teach. Kids might not like the subject, but that shouldn’t change what is taught. This “difficult” tag is just another rationalization for changing what is taught and how it’s taught. Look at the tests. Look at the actual questions. Then decide whether it is difficult.

    TfT also wrote:

    >”Are there any engineers, professors, doctors, etc. out there who would like it, or heaven forbid, stand for it, if his or her child didn’t make the cut, and were tracked downward?”

    Don’t make me laugh. These professionals are the ones making up the difference at home. They are the ones making sure that their kids master the times table and know exactly how to manipulate fractions. Their kids are the ones who are able to overcome low expectation and fuzzy K-8 curricula to go on to college prep and honors courses in high school. And people wonder why there is a correlation between the education level of parents and the success of their kids. The parents make up the difference.

    TfT also wrote:

    >”This is how and why the so called fuzzy math got and continues to have traction. The so called fuzzy math is an attempt to bring the element up to or close to snuff, which the old unfussy way didn’t accomplish.”

    What do you mean by “element”? What do you mean by “up to or close to snuff”? That is meaningless. Do you mean that you lower expectations and chop off the top of the bell curve because the better students can’t get ahead? Do you call this equality? If you lower expectations and cover less material, then you can bring the lowest level students up to a slightly higher level. When this is done, you ignore the needs of the better students and flatten the bell curve artificially. Do you call this equality? Is this good? These schools give lots of lip service to teaching all kids to their own level, but it is a lie. Our schools know that this is a problem and think that enrichment (homework) and not curriculum acceleration is all that is needed. Low expectations. I have even talked with IEP parents who are outraged at the low expectations for thier kids. Ooooh! They have a problem so we cannot expect a lot from them. It would not be developmentally appropriate.

    TfT wrote:

    >”Are we ready for a strict system of attrition via a strict bell curve evaluation of students? Again I don’t think so.”

    Attrition? You solve this by lowering expectations for everyone? Sounds like social promotion, where you solve the dropout problem by expecting nothing and passing the kids along. Voila! No more dropout problem!

    The traditional process is to assume that all kids are capable of going to college and you teach them that way. In 7th and 8th grades you begin to separate kids based on their abilities, interests, or willingness to work. What we have now is a system that teaches to the lowest common denominator using standards that guarantee that the kids will not be prepared for college unless they get outside help.

    TfT wrote:

    >”Now, as to learning arithmetic properly, I think, if students learn to problem solve, via a curriculum which is not deemed proper, so what.”

    AAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!! Speaking of solving problem, can you tell me different techniques one can use to solve problems where MN? Do you even know what I am talking about? Exactly which problems are you talking about here?

    TfT wrote:

    >”Now, as an aside here, Singapore Math works because it reflects and fits the society it emerged from. Singapore citizens consider homelessness and hunger an affront to their society and take care of it. The idea that Singapore math could somehow fix what ails us (mathematically and societally) is wrong thinking.”

    This comment is just so stupid that I am at a loss for words. All I can say is to look at Singapore Math and compare. I have some of the books sitting right here. Second Grade – Primary Math 2B – Workbook – Third Edition, page 78:


    108 + 42 =

    4/6 is (greater than, equal to, or less than) 2/3

    page 81, problem 10

    John, David, and Peter share 24 picture cards equally. How many picture cards does each boy get?

    These questions are typical. Do you think that it is NOT developmentally appropriate for kids to be able to answer these questions in second grade? Just how do these questions “reflect(s) and fit(s) the society it emerged from”? Is it a society that sets higher standards and does not give opinion and pedagogy-based Ed School grads with no understanding of math complete control over curricula?

    Do you think that Saxon math is OK because it has an American origin?

  17. My inequality signs did not come through properly.

    Speaking of solving problems, can you tell me different techniques one can use to solve problems where M is less than N, M is equal to N, and M is greater than N? Do you even know what I am talking about? Exactly which problems are you talking about here?

    The inequality signs did not come through.

  18. Chris C., I stand corrected on the quotations, but I’d be willing to bet that if finding racism and bias throughout the curriculum is something that the teachers apply to their math lessons, the effect would be about the same.

    Steve, the reason it never happens the way I would do it is because it makes sense. For some strange reason, any proposal that makes sense to someone outside the educational establishment will never make it through them to the schools. Something worth looking into…

  19. My district is on the road to “full inclusion.” We’re a 60-40% white-black, formerly federally-mandated desegregated district. Studies have shown that the average minority (re: black) GPA before deseg. was approx. 1.6; after 25 yrs. of deseg. it remained there. But now, full inclusion is being implemented using the deseg. rationale — that high-achievers will “raise up” the low-achievers. Unfortunately, the worse behavior of the low-achievers usually ends up consuming the class, “egging on” the high-achievers, and the result is a mess.

    We’re told to “treat all students equally” and have “high standards for all,” but at our latest faculty meeting our principal said that “giving homework may not be the best idea since some kids don’t have an adequate home life and, indeed, may be beaten for doing it.” In the “getting to know your minority (black) students better” dept., one of our asst. principals (a black woman) suggested to teachers that having a bottle of moisturizing lotion on hand would be a good idea since black students like to use it — ’cause their skin gets that “ashen look.” I’m dead serious. When a teacher noted that lotions were not permitted in class per student code of conduct, our principal stated “Well, gum isn’t permitted in class either, but they chew it.”

    Nice.

  20. Speaker of Truth says:

    To mollo,

    You asked…

    [45.6 : 80%] I have no idea what this is. I’ve never seen this format used as a computational function. There were no words at all. Would somebody clue us in to this?

    I’m not sure if the test had multiple choice answers to it, though looking at the question, it is a ratio asking 45.6 is to 80%, therefore the most logical answer it is looking for is what would be the number for 100%. That number would be 57.

  21. Speaker of Truth says:

    This horrific news is tragic for the children involved. The educators need to be brought to task and should be made to pay dearly for their “cavalier” experiment. To do this in an affluent, predominately white area of Boston smacks of extreme Liberal ideology run amok. Where were the parents during all this? I do not want to dump on parents as ALWAYS being the ones responsible, however they are the ones who have THE MOST interest in their children out of anybody and this definitely includes the education system. Why on earth would they let this happen? Did they not see their childrens work, as I do or my wife does? Unless these parents were Liberal ideologues, as the educators, and bought into this tripe, they should furious with this news. I know I would be.

  22. Competence should be rewarded. But here it seems that incompetence is rewarded instead–huge salaries going to grossly incompetent administrators. And they never seem to learn.

    This type of thing is at least as bad as Enron, and much, much worse than anything Martha Stewart ever did. It’s the kids who suffer. The kids and anyone who is part of their lives from now on.

  23. Speaker of Truth wrote:

    >”Unless these parents were Liberal ideologues, as the educators, and bought into this tripe, they should furious with this news. I know I would be.”

    In our town, the schools are rated as “high performing”. This, however, is graded on minimal, urban-based (talk about racist) expectations on the fuzzy and simple state NSRE test. Our schools trumpet their status while 25 percent of the town’s kids are put into different schools by their parents because they want higher expectations. Many of these parents grew up in public schools. Individual parents try to get the public schools to do more and expect more from their kids, but it doesn’t happen. There is no organized protest. That would be extremely, politically incorrect in our small town.

    There is still a large group that feel that public schools represent some sort of ideal of egalitarian education. The general opinion is that parents who put their kids into private schools are just looking for a separate, elitist education for their kids. The reaction is that of course those schools can do more because the kids are “pre-selected”. Some parents don’t seem to have a well-formed opinion on what is a good education; some don’t think that grades K-8 are that important; some make up the difference at home; others can’t afford private schools and keep quiet because you can’t fight city hall and they don’t want to create a problem for their kids. Most of all, many of the parents who would form an organized protest have moved their kids to other schools and have washed their hands of the public school problems. Actually, there seems to be this sort of unspoken rule; nobody minds or says anything (in public) when you put your kids into private school as long as you just shut-up and go away.

    Egalitarian education nowadays usually translates to the idea that all kids are equal (perhaps having different strengths) and all kids can learn. They want all kids (of the same age) to be taught in common, mixed-ability groups. The problem is that all kids are not equal. All kids can learn, but some do so at much faster rates. Our schools sent home a questionaire asking parents to describe how their kids learn. One parent wrote back and said: “fast”.

    Public schools know that there are many kids who need more, but they don’t know how to do it. They widen the range of abilities in each grade using full-inclusion and they still expect to provide an environment that meets the needs of all kids and sets high expectations. On top of this, they want to have the egalitarian, mixed-ability, child-centered discovery teaching methods. This is the dominance of Ed School philosophy and pedagogy over common sense.

    Our public schools try to solve the problem using spiraling of the curricula and differentiated instruction. If you look at the school’s curriculum document, it lists, for each topic, what grade it is introduced, what grade it is taught, what grade(s) it is refreshed, and by what grade is it expected to be learned. Spiraling and social promotion are specifically built into the curriculum. Of course, the question is what are the better students doing when the lower-level students are still trying to learn last year’s material. It puts a crimp on the mixed-ability, child centered groupings. For the better (and even average) students, not much learning goes on during the day.

    As for differentiated instruction, this involves enrichment (do more of or variations of the same material) rather than acceleration of the curriculum. If little Suzie has mastered adds and subtracts early in the second grade, she can’t go on to start learning the times tables – that is acceleration and is not allowed or is greatly discouraged. Add to this a lowering of the expectations. Our public schools do not require mastery of adds and subtracts to 20 until the middle of the third grade.

    The problem is that they think that it is somehow racist, non-egalitarian, or developmentally inappropriate to set high standards, expect specific year-to-year mastery of material, and provide the better students with acceleration of the curriculum. Could these people think that because minorities do less well on exams that it would be racist to set high year-to-year expectations and separate the higher ability kids? This would be the bigotry of low expectations. They claim high expectations. Call their bluff; ask for details and sample tests.

  24. Camilla Benbow’s research into the top one tenth of one percent of seventh and eighth graders taking the SAT is quite fascinating. Her research demonstrates what gifted students are capable of if they are somehow given the access to the larger world of knowledge–far beyond the pitifully crippling and confining world of the public school.

    Of course the same is true for the top one percent or even the top five percent. Society only works because one out of ten workers is competent enough and motivated enough to prop up the other nine out of ten. You can count almost all government employees, including public school teachers, in that nine out of ten.

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