STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

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.

Math needs a revolution too

Math Needs a Revolution, Too, writes Barry Garelick in response to The Atlantic story, The Writing Revolution. He first encountered reform math when his daughter was in second grade.

. . . understanding takes precedence over procedure and process trumps content. In this world, memorization is looked down upon as “rote learning” and thus addition and subtraction facts are not drilled in the classroom–it’s something for students to learn at home. Inefficient methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are taught in the belief that such methods expose the conceptual underpinning of what is happening during these operations. The standard (and efficient) methods for these operations are delayed sometimes until 4th and 5th grades, when students are deemed ready to learn procedural fluency.

Students are expected to “think like mathematicians” before acquiring the analytic tools necessary to do so, Garelick writes. Procedural skills are taught on a “just in time” basis.

Such a process may eliminate what the education establishment views as tedious “drill and kill” exercises, but it results in poor learning and lack of mastery. Students generally work in groups with teachers who “facilitate” rather than providing direct instruction.

As reform math has become the norm in K-6 classrooms, high school math teachers are trying to teach algebra to students who “do not know how to do simple mathematical procedures,” he writes.

In math, as in writing, learning the fundamentals may not be fun or engaging. It may require practice. But students who skip the basics rarely develop the ability to “think like mathematicians” or write like “authors.” They’re confused. And bored.