Summer is the time for desperate students to try to catch up in math, writes Patrick Welsh, a teacher and USA Today columnist. He’s seen the gap between standards and performance at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, where he teaches English. Students are pushed to tackle high-level classes when they haven’t mastered the fundamentals.
The result of these grand plans, says T.C. math teacher Gary Thomas, is that “we are ending up with kids in upper-level math courses who do not know how to add, subtract or divide unless they use a calculator and who are lost when it comes to fractions.” As a consequence, when he gets kids in algebra II and trigonometry, says Thomas, he is constantly having to backtrack to teach skills students should have learned years ago.
One reason for the teacher frustration is that the state’s math gurus have de-emphasized memorization in favor of “conceptual thinking.” The same philosophy has crept into English classes, where “creativity” has been elevated over knowledge of grammar, and into history classes, where knowing historical trends â€” “the big picture” â€” has replaced knowing dates of important events. The result is seniors who are not just incapable of multiplication, but also unable to identify the verb in a sentence or come within 100 years of placing the Civil War.
I’ve never believed that people are better able to understand concepts if they know no facts. Perhaps the ignorant are more creative — but not in a good way.