Don’t blame teachers for math failure

Americans stink at math because U.S. teachers aren’t trained to teach for understanding, argues Elizabeth Green in the New York Times.  Teaching “mind-numbing” routines bores students and sets them up for failure, she writes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese math classes.

Problem solving is stressed in Japanese classes.

By contrast, Japanese teachers embraced the “vibrant” 1980s math reforms that failed here. Their students “uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves,” enjoy math and excel on international tests.

Wrong, responds Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

Most Japanese parents send their children to private, after-school jukus, cram schools that focus “on basic skills, drill and practice, and memorization,” writes Loveless.

. . . perhaps because of jukus, Japanese teachers can take their students’ fluency with mathematical procedures for granted and focus lessons on problem solving and conceptual understanding.  American teachers, on the other hand, must teach procedural fluency or it is not taught at all.

On international surveys, U.S. students are more likely than Japanese kids to say they enjoy math class, Loveless points out.

Japan’s math achievement has declined since 1995, he writes. They do well, but not as well as in the pre-reform era, when it was all “rote learning,” according to Green.

The U.S. education establishment went all out for math reform in the 1990s, Loveless writes. Ed school professors backed it. “The National Science Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars training teachers.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rewrote its math framework and redesigned its test.

Math reform in the U.S. is typically the offspring of government power wedded to education school romanticism. . . math reform movements have repeatedly failed not because of stubborn teachers who cling to tired, old practices but because the reforms have been—there are no other words for it—just bad ideas.

Green also is wrong to imply that Common Core standards require her preferred method of teaching, Loveless writes. “These standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach,” proclaims the Common Core web site.

Barry Garelick shows how to teach the new standards using traditional math instruction. He’s got examples from a book published in 1955:

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