Will the Obama girls learn math?

Barry Garelick is OK with the Obamas’ decision to send their daughters to private school. But he fears the girls won’t learn math at Sidwell Friends.

. . . Sidwell uses Investigations in Number, Data and Space, one of the NSF-sponsored atrocities that passes as a math course and grossly underprepares students for math.

. . . Many parents . . . allow themselves to be convinced that procedural fluency and conceptual understanding cannot possibly work in tandem.

Sidwell math coordinators defended the curriculum after the Washington Post reported that local parents were protesting the use of Investigations.

Educated parents can tutor their children in math or hire a tutor, Garelick writes. Then, when the kids test well, the curriculum gets the credit. But many parents don’t know how to help their children with math and can’t afford tutoring. If the school’s curriculum is confusing, the kids stay confused.

About Joanne


  1. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Is there any reliable data on how many parents tutor or hire tutors for their children? I keep running into people who work as tutors so I tend to think that a goodly number do though I realize my experience is only anecdotal. The difference in financial status among schools is often taken as explaining the difference in outcomes but it may be that the difference is who is supplementing what the schools are doing.

  2. First of all, math is math…it does not care how good you feel about yourself if you cannot do it correctly. As someone who graduated 5 months after Reagan became president in 1981 (and before the US Dept of Education could brainwash me), I have seen a complete erosion of math skills in this nation over the last 30 years. The trend has even extended to our college campuses, where students struggle with math concepts I learned in 6th grade, and basic statistics which I learned as a high school student.

    If a student can master addition, subtraction, multiplication, division (and their properties) along with fractions and percentages, they’ll have a good foundation for learning whatever math they want to in the future (however, with such poor math preparation in schools today, i’m not going to hold my breath).

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:

    By the way, as someone who educates at home, I can testify that materials that teach BOTH concepts and procedures through games that have children squealing in delight are readily available.

  4. Math is in the middle of a culture war similar to the phonics/whole language controversy from the past. Any good teacher can tell you that BOTH elements are important for learning. I have used Math Investigations for a number of years and I’ve found that it is most effective for students who do NOT have an intuitive sense of number. Many students are able to memorize their math facts and algorithms with little understanding of why the answers are the way they are. When you come upon more complex problem solving in algebra and calculus, memorization will not carry you through. The Math Investigations program requires children to explain their problem solving. Memorization does not. Both elements are necessary for proficiency in mathematics. I wish people would stop being so dramatic about “programs” and worry more about the “mile wide, inch deep” curriculums we are teaching in elementary mathematics these days.

  5. There’s an extremely chichi local school for geniuses that did such a bad job at math that I picked up a nice sideline in tutoring their students for the ISEE–they could tell you what a parabola was, but they didn’t know how to add fractions. The parents started complaining in huge numbers and things got much better.

  6. Good job Barry.

    The issue of help at home or tutoring has been a big thing for me. It wouldn’t be difficult for a school to collect data on this. Schools could have parents send in an explanation with each homework. Unfortunately, there might be a lot of swear words coming back with the dioramas. (I can’t tell you how many basic drawing, planning, and graphic design skills I have taught my son. I even had to teach him how to hold a pencil in Kindergarten. I better stop now.)

    There seems to be a huge difference between what parents do even in high SES communities. My wife and I do a lot to make sure that learning gets done, but based on comments from my son’s friends, this isn’t true for some other parents. Sure, they make their kids do the homework, get a good night’s sleep, and are fed properly, but it takes much more than that. We go over all of our son’s work on a daily basis. We teach and reteach as necessary. We talk about history, geography, and the political process. We work with him on writing and editing. I teach him math. We tell him that he has to pass our standards, not the school’s standards. I am sure the school will take full credit.

    So, what do schools expect parents to do, exactly?

    This is what the NEA says about the issue:

    – – – –

    “How Can Parents Get Involved?

    Involvement in your child’s education can mean:

    Reading to your child

    Checking homework every night

    Discussing your children’s progress with teachers

    Voting in school board elections

    Helping your school to set challenging academic standards

    Limiting TV viewing on school nights

    Becoming an advocate for better education in your community and state.

    Or, it can be as simple as asking your children, “How was school today?” But ask every day. That will send your children the clear message that their schoolwork is important to you and you expect them to learn.”

    – – – –

    These things won’t get the job done. It’s not just showing you care about education. Parents have a lot more work to do. The first quarter grades just came out and the honor roll was published in the paper. When I look at the names, I see a correlation with what I know about the parents. I find it interesting that some parents who are huge supporters of public school are also the ones providing a lot of help at home. Perhaps they assume that all parents can or should do what they do. I would rather not do the school’s job, thank you, especially when it comes to ensuring mastery of the basics. How many parents have received notes saying that they should practice the times table with their kids? Are they implying that parents hold some responsibility for learning the basics? Where is that on the list? That’s their job. Enrichment is my job. They seem to have gotten this backwards.

    Schools need to explain exactly what they expect, not just hand out a vague list like the one above. If a child hasn’t mastered the times table by fifth grade, you can’t assume that the parents don’t care. Perhaps they thought that the school is doing all they should. If this is an issue, parents should sign a pledge about the list above and even provide home inspections or interviews. Then, if a child never learns the times table, we’ll know where to look. There are many urban parents who care a whole lot about the list above and make sure their kids care about education. What do schools do for them? Nothing. They are statistics.

  7. “But many parents don’t know how to help their children with math and can’t afford tutoring.”

    But would that generally be the case at Sidwell Friends? Doesn’t it have a mostly affluent student body (with exceptions, of course). Would paying for tutoring be a problem for these kids’ parents?

    I mean, I’m not saying that SF kids are filthy rich or anything. But if my parents could afford tutoring when our family was nowhere near rich (only comfortable), then I can’t imagine that most SF parents would have an issue here.

    Then again, I could be completely off as to the demographics of this school. I didn’t find much info on Wikipedia.

  8. Barry Garelick says:

    But would that generally be the case at Sidwell Friends? Doesn’t it have a mostly affluent student body (with exceptions, of course). Would paying for tutoring be a problem for these kids’ parents?

    That’s precisely the point. The kids at Sidwell will probably do just fine, and Sidwell (and Investigations) gets the credit. This creates a jeopardy for parents who are doing battle with schools to get them to dump Investigations. Schools will now be able to say “Investigations is good enough for the President’s kids, so why is not good enough for yours?”

  9. If schools introducing this curriculum are thinking out of the box and enforcing it despite opposition from parents, they should take complete responsibility of making sure that students understand the concepts and learn math. Parents from such schools districts cannot and should not rely on tutors to get the job done even if they can afford them because if the tutors don’t follow the same ideology as the schools do, students will be in double trouble. Also, even if parents of such students know math, they will teach or encourage their kids to solve problems the traditional way and this will be very confusing for them.

    In my opinion, Investigations is great for students in smaller grades and helps strengthen mental math and quick calculations. If they can add or subtract large numbers mentally, there is no reason to learn the “stack and carry” approach. I haven’t done in depth research about Investigations; however, from whatever I have read, I think it is somewhat similar to Vedic math popular in India in which calculation strategies are creative and can be applied in a number of ways to calculation methods in arithmetic and algebra.

    What schools actually need is a combination of both approaches- Investigations and procedural. When it comes to math formulas and proving congruency theorems in geometry, there is not a lot of room for creative thinking. When it comes to doing basic math as you grow older (esp those pursuing non-math careers), for example, calculating tip at a restaurant etc, this new approach to math will go a long way.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    Parents from such schools districts cannot and should not rely on tutors to get the job done even if they can afford them because if the tutors don’t follow the same ideology as the schools do, students will be in double trouble.

    The problem is that some of the parents are very worried that their children will not learn math if taught using TERC Investigations alone. Since the school using TERC won’t be around to pick up the pieces in high school, what then?

    As an example of the sort of thing that can concern overprotective parents of children using Investigations, the 3rd grade (“Also appropriate for 4th grade” from the inside cover) teacher’s manual has a page devoted to “Strategies for Learning Addition Combinations up to 10 + 10.” Some of these overprotective parents start worrying when their 9 year old children are still working on 8+7.

    -Mark Roulo

  11. How much annual tuition does Sidwell Friends charge? If I were paying 20something-30something+ grand a year, I would be EXTREMELY upset to have to shell out additional money for afterschool tutoring…

  12. This controversy has little to do with procedures versus understanding, or traditional math (whatever that was) versus reform math. It has more to do with high expectations versus low expectations. It has more to do with a bottom-up or mastery approach to math versus a top-down or real world approach to math. These differences become much more clear when you get to fractions, decimals, and proportions. K-8 educators are redefining math to make it easier, not more rigorous. They talk about understanding, but kids come out with fewer skills. Skills, mastery, and experience are not devoid of understanding by definition.

    A multi-procedure approach might sound reasonable for basic math, but it cannot make the transition to the later grades where real understanding is based on arithmetic and algebraic identities; where students need an abstract understanding of fractions rather than a graphical pie understanding. These curricula can’t make the transition to the abstract needs of algebra.

    On top of a simplistic approach to understanding, curricula like TERC don’t value mastery at any one point in time. The idea is that mastery will be achieved when the student is ready. It’s not as if these curricula force students to really master any one of the various approaches they push. If students can reason out an answer (somehow, sometime), using their “understanding”, then mastery is not as important. It only adds speed. This is their basic fallacy. Math is a toolbox, not a way of thinking.

    Math is about mastery of skills that allow you to think less, not more. Looking at it another way, math is about mastery of skills that allow you to think about much more complex tasks. Mastery leads to a deeper level of understanding. Mastery is the only way to go from a conceptual understanding to a concrete understanding.

  13. Tom in GA says:

    More elementary than even discussing curricula, I think the heart of the issue at learning math is the following question:

    How do we encourage students to understand and not just use?

    I wonder if it is innate in me (and similiarly in others as well) that I have a serious desire to really understand the world around me. I don’t just use the internet, I like to know how it is put together and what makes it work. I don’t just drive my car, I like to know why the engine works and how to do routine maintenance. I don’t just watch sports, I like to understand the rules of the game and why coaches and managers use certain strategies.

    When I teach math, I try to encourage students to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Obviously if they can’t do a skill or task, understand it is irrelevant, but simply following a procedure or algorithm seems pointless; how do you know if the procedure is appropriate or if your result makes sense coming from the algorithm? I get the impression this kind of deeper understanding isn’t encouraged in school and I wonder if it is even teachable. My students give me positive feedback about how passionate I feel about learning math and how I explain things that were always unclear but my pass rates are no higher than most of my colleagues.

  14. He’s 100% right – and i did that without an investigation.