When teachers teach math, kids learn more

Hold on to your hats! When teachers teach math directly — with time for practice and drill — students learn more math. That’s especially true for those with math difficulties.

Teaching math through dance is popular -- but ineffective.

Teaching math through dance is popular — but ineffective.

However, first-grade teachers with lots of students with math difficulties use more ineffective teaching practices, such as movement, music, manipulatives and calculators, concludes a new study.

“Only teacher-directed instruction was significantly associated” with math achievement, researchers concluded.

What worked best for struggling students was “routine practice and drills (that’s right, drill and kill!),” writes Fordham’s Amber Northern. “Similarly, lots of chalkboard instruction, traditional textbook practice problems, and worksheets that went over math skills and concepts were also effective with them.”

Youngsters who struggle with math simply need their teachers to show them how to do the math and then practice themselves how to do it—a lot! Why is such instruction so hard for them to come by?

Teacher-directed instruction helped students who weren’t struggling, but they also benefited from “working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving ‘real-life’ math problems,” writes Northern.

“Drill and kill” has persuaded a lot of teachers to cut down on practice time, writes Robert Pondiscio He suggests “train and gain” or possibly “try and fly.” There’s always “practice makes perfect,” but that doesn’t rhyme.

Is your kid getting reform math?

Here’s how to tell if your kids are being taught reform math by Robert Craigen and Barry Garelick.

“In the past students were taught by rote; we teach understanding.” First, ‘rote’ literally means ‘repetition’ — and this is a good idea, not a bad one. Second, it is simply false that teaching was without understanding — by design, in any case — in the past. There have always been teachers who taught math poorly or neglected to include a conceptual context. 

. . . Under reform math, students are required to use inefficient procedures for several years before they are exposed to and allowed to use the standard method (or “algorithm”) — if they are at all. This is done in the belief that the alternative approaches confer understanding to the standard algorithm.  . . . But this out-loud articulation of “meaning” in every stage is the arithmetic equivalent of forcing a reader to keep a finger on the page, sounding out every word, every time, with no progression of reading skill. Alternatives become the main course instead of a side dish and students can become confused — often profoundly so.

If you hear references to “drill and kill,” “the guide on the side not the sage on the stage”  or “just-in-time learning,” it’s reform math, they write. Praise for ambiguity, flipping, group learning and “making students think like mathematicians” also are danger signs, they write.

“We use a balanced approach”  means “go away.”

Many educators are interpreting Common Core to mean fuzzy math, says Garelick in a Heartland interview.

From Parents Against Everyday Math:

Photo: Its like this.

Myths of the anti-testing backlash

Test haters have become myth makers, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Jennifer Borgioli on Gadfly.

The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

. . . research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers.

. . . Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to catch kids up and get them back on the path to success.

Testing also is blamed for “drill-and-kill” instruction that existed long before the testing-and-accountability era, they write.

All else being equal, the students who typically fare better on state tests are those whose teachers focus not on empty test-taking tricks but rather on content-rich and intellectually engaging curriculum.

Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given “intellectually demanding work.”

Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain. No test can measure everything, concede Porter-Magee and Borgioli. But many skills can be evaluated.

Anti-testers argue that setting standards and aligning assessments to them doesn’t work because it’s not what the Finns do.

Our own history suggests that it is exactly the states that have set rigorous standards connected to strong accountability regimes—most notably, Massachusetts—that have seen the greatest gains for all students, not just our most disadvantaged.

Meaningful reform will “require the effective measurement of student achievement that tests make possible,” they conclude.