Elizabeth Green’s Why do Americans Stink at Math? didn’t go far enough, writes Dan Willingham. Improving math instruction is even harder than she thinks.
The nub of her argument is this. American stink at math because the methods used to teach it are rote, don’t lead to transfer to the real world, and lead to shallow understanding. There are pedagogical methods that lead to much deeper understanding. U.S. researchers pioneered these methods and Japanese student achievement took off when the Japanese educational system adopted them.
. . . Traditional classrooms are characterized by the phrase “I, We, You.” The teacher models a new mathematical procedure (“I”), the whole class practices it (“We”), and then individual students try it on their own (“You”). That’s the method that leads to rote, shallow knowledge. More desirable is “You, Y’all, We.” The teacher presents a problem which students try to solve on their own (“You”). Then they meet in small groups to compare and discuss the solutions they’ve devised (Y’all). Finally, the groups share their ideas as a whole class (“We”).
Reform math comes around every 30 years, but never gains traction, writes Willingham. Green blames “lack of support for teachers, and the fact that teachers must understand math better to use these methods.”
Green’s take is that if you hand down a mandate from on high “teach this way” with little training, and hand it to people with a shaky grasp of the foundations of math, the result is predictable; you get the fuzzy crap in classrooms that’s probably worse than the mindless memorization that characterizes the worst of the “I, We, You” method.
True enough, writes Willingham. But there’s more.
Green’s preferred method requires teachers to make quick decisions in class when a group gets on the wrong track. “Do you try to get the class to see where it went wrong right away, or do you let them continue, and play out the consequences of the their solution? Once you’ve decided that, what exactly will you say to try to nudge them in that direction?”
Japanese teachers discuss individual lessons in detail to prepare for this. They agree on the best way to teach each lesson down to what numbers are best for examples. And they expect all students to learn the same content with no regard for individual differences.
U.S. teachers are used to teaching autonomy.
In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, Elizabeth Green argues that Japanese teachers are teaching math for understanding, while U.S. teachers haven’t been able to make reform math work.
The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.
“This observation, that poor teacher preparation turns everything to garbage, strikes me as the skeleton key that unlocks so much of our failure to make and sustain gains in American education,” writes Robert Pondiscio.
Want to play a drinking game? Every time someone blames sloppy implementation for their pet reform’s poor results, take a drink. You may never be sober again. Drink every time someone says the answer is “more professional development,” and you might die of alcohol poisoning.
This needs to stop. Your preferred pedagogy, curriculum, approach, or technology has to be within the skills of ordinary teachers to implement well and effectively. If it takes a superstar teacher it’s a nonstarter.
Green’s upcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that good teaching can be taught.
Pondiscio has high hopes for the book, because of Green’s “clear-eyed” New York Times Magazine profile of Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov. The story launched him as a teaching guru.
Lemov changed the conversation from “teacher quality” to “quality teaching,” Pondiscio wrote in a review of his book, Teach Like a Champion.
“The difference is not who the teacher is, but what the teacher does,” he writes. “And what the teacher does has to be learned, practiced, and mastered by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wished we had.”
We “lionize” teaching super stars, who never will exist in sufficient numbers, Pondiscio concludes. “Teaching has to be a job for millions of well-trained men and women of good will and general sentience.”
“You don’t need to be a genius,” Green told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. “You have to know how to manage a discussion. You have to know which problems are the ones most likely to get the lessons across. You have to understand how students make mistakes — how they think — so you can respond to that.”
College students are more likely to succeed in remedial math classes if they’re taught that ability is malleable: The more you use your brain, the better it works.
Manufacturers are working with high schools and community colleges in hopes of closing the skills — and earnings — gap.
Traditional and charter schools are working together in Spring Branch, Texas, near Houston, reports PBS.
Choir class blends district and KIPP students at Spring Branch’s Landrum Middle School, reports KERA.
One recent school day, students sang “I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy ’til I make you happy too…” Choir director Jaime Trigo led students through the lyrics and dance steps for an upcoming concert. The mix is “awesome,” he says.
More than 20 school districts, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, are collaborating with charter schools on teacher training, ways to measure student progress and other issues, writes Richard Whitmire in Education Next.
Districts have signed “compacts” with charters — with funding from the Gates Foundation.
In Denver and in Aldine and Spring Branch, Texas, superintendents have invited high-performing charters to share space in schools. Charter and district principals and teachers interact with each other. Students take some classes together.
District superintendents want to import some of the charter classroom culture they see. At Northbrook Middle School in Spring Branch, students have adopted a new attitude about academic success. Now, “it’s cool to know the answers.”
Charter school leaders need building space, and access to students. Districts have helped charters coordinate services for special education students and by setting common performance metrics for low-performing charters.
Don Shalvey, who’s leading the compact initiative for Gates, is a former school superintendent and founder of the Aspire charter network.
Spring Branch adopted SLANT (sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod for understanding and track the speaker) from its charter partner. Now they’re thinking of adopting YES Prep’s math curriculum.
Texas provides no facilities funding for charters, so YES Prep saves millions by co-locating. The district gets to report the charter’s higher test scores as its own.
Aldine plans to adopt YES Prep’s college-prep curriculum, writes Whitmire. Again, the charter gets shared space it would struggle to afford without the partnership.
In San Jose, Franklin-McKinley Superintendent John Porter invited Rocketship and KIPP to open schools in the low-income, heavily immigrant district. To compete for students, a district elementary school developed a science theme in partnership with the city’s Tech Museum.
When 20 Texas schools tried to emulate the practices of effective charters, gains were small in math and nonexistent in reading, notes Dan Willingham.
District schools couldn’t afford to lengthen the school day or provide tutoring in all grades and subjects, he writes. “It may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.”
A low-performing K-8 school extended the school day by 85 minutes, but found students and teachers were exhausted — and test scores went down. Now the New Haven school provides more time for teacher collaboration in a normal 6 1/2-hour day, writes Melissa Bailey on the Hechinger Report. Scores are rising.
Brennan-Rogers School serves three public housing projects. Once Brennan had been a “community school” that stayed open nights and weekends for basketball tournaments and neighborhood events, writes Bailey.
By the 2009-10 academic year, that effort was long gone. Test scores were low. Student behavior was out of control. Principal Karen Lott was brought in to turn around the school.
Brennan-Rogers students began to attend school from 8:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, with an early dismissal on Wednesdays. Much of the extra time went to enrichment activities like gardening and other student clubs and assemblies with student performances. Brennan-Rogers added 45 minutes a day for teacher collaboration while students were sent to art and gym. The school extended academic periods every day but Wednesday, when kids left between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. while teachers stayed for training. The effort was funded by a federal grant to overhaul failing schools, which required them to expand learning time.
Parents received no advance notice of the longer schedule. Students thought they were being punished.
After a year, Lott proposed returning to the normal school day with extra time for teacher collaboration.
For the past three years, teachers have met for an hour each morning without kids. Some days, they work with colleagues teaching the same grade to plan field trips or interdisciplinary projects on topics like slavery. Other days, they learn how to use iPads and Apple TVs. Teachers also comb through student data, help each other plan lessons and analyze how those lessons went.
. . . Though the day is shorter, instruction is more efficient, said sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey. “The kids are getting more out of it.”
In September, Brennan-Rogers plans to add 15 minutes a day for students, but the time won’t be used for academics, writes Bailey. “Instead, there will be a 30-minute morning meeting for kids to work on communication skills and conflict resolution.”