No math, no job

Weak math skills disqualify would-be workers, manufacturers say.

High school graduates applying for jobs at Tacoma’s General Plastics Manufacturing have to take a math test. The company makes foam products for the aerospace industry.

Eighteen questions, 30 minutes, and using a calculator is OK.

They are asked how to convert inches to feet, read a tape measure and find the density of a block of foam (mass divided by volume).

One in 10 pass the math test. And it’s not just a problem at General Plastics.

“Manufacturers are willing to train people about the specifics of their machines and technology,” said Linda Nguyen, CEO of Work Force Central, a partnership of government, business, education and community organizations that trains workers in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County. “But they can’t afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math.”

Math teachers know their students will need math knowledge in the real word, writes Darren, a high school math teacher, on Right on the Left Coast. But he’s turned off by the story’s “drooling over Common Core Standards. Many teachers  “doubt . . .  the so-called cure.”

Having students write about math isn’t a real cure.  Group work isn’t a cure.  Collaboration requires everyone have some background knowledge on which to draw so everyone can contribute.  I wouldn’t mind cutting a few topics out so we had more time to cover the remaining topics more deeply, but to insist on so-called discovery learning is an exceedingly inefficient use of instructional time.

Instead of trying to make math “fun” or “applicable”, perhaps we could consider instilling in students, or insisting on, some perseverance and a sense of responsibility, and maybe even some delayed gratification.

Employers would value those traits too, Darren believes.

Many students who slid through high school without really learning math enroll at community colleges with hopes of training for a job or eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Placement in remedial math is the single biggest dream killer.

What works? The sage on the stage

Unless they’re experts, students learn more when teachers fully explain the material, write Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner and John Sweller in the new American Educator.

Discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, constructivist learning — whatever the label, teaching that only partially guides students, and expects them to discover information on their own, is not effective or efficient. Decades of research clearly demonstrates that when teaching new information or skills, step-by-step instruction with full explanations works best.

Minimally guided instruction (“the guide on the side”) takes a great deal more time than explicit instruction (“the sage on the stage”). The  brightest and best-prepared students may “discover” what they’re supposed to, but the less-skilled students will fall even farther behind, the authors write.  “Minimally guided instruction can increase the achievement gap.”

In a second story, Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine discusses “highly effective instructional practices, such as teaching new material in small amounts, modeling, asking lots of questions, providing feedback, and making time for practice and review.”

2+2 = litigation

Judges shouldn’t pick math curricula, writes Joshua Dunn, a University of Colorado political science professor, in the fall issue of Education Next.

In February 2010, a state judge overturned the Seattle school board’s decision to use the “Discovering” math curriculum. The adoption had prompted a lawsuit by a retired math teacher, a professor of atmospheric science and the mother of a high school student.

The plaintiffs argued that the curriculum would widen rather than narrow Seattle’s achievement gap between minority and white children. One of the plaintiffs, Professor Cliff Mass, wrote in his blog, “Seattle Public Schools picked high school math books that are not only bad for everyone, but they are PARTICULARLY bad for the disadvantaged who don’t have extra cash for tutoring or whose parents don’t have the time or backgrounds to help their kids.”

In February 2010, Judge Julie Spector agreed with the plaintiffs in a terse three-page opinion devoid of any analysis. She simply asserted that the district behaved arbitrarily and capriciously and that there was “insufficient evidence for any reasonable member of the board to approve the selection of the Discovering Series.”

The curriculum may be faddish and foolish, Dunn writes, but the judge was “arbitrary and capricious” in substituting her judgment for that of the school board.

While the Seattle school district is appealing Judge Spector’s decision, parents have filed suit to get the Issaquah school district to drop the Discovering series. Bellevue, another district with well-to-do and well-organized parents, faces a possible lawsuit over Discovering.

Learn math step by step

Barry Garelick writes about discovery learning in math at the Nonpartisan Education Review.

Students given well-defined problems that draw upon prior knowledge . . . are doing much more than simply memorizing algorithmic procedures. They are developing the procedural fluency and understanding that are so essential to mathematics; and they are developing the habits of mind that will continue to serve them well in more advanced, college level mathematics courses. Poorly-posed problems with multiple “right” answers turn mathematics into a frustrating guessing game. Similarly, problems for which students are expected to discover what they need to know in the process of solving it do little more than confuse.

Lefty stands accused of “widening the achievement gap” by running an extracurricular Continental Math League club for students who enjoy math. The principal wants a club for kids who aren’t doing well in math. Sounds like fun! Lefty suggests a better math curriculum so fewer kids are confused and struggling.