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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Magical thinking on teaching math

We know a lot about how to teach students who have trouble learning math, writes researcher Tom Loveless. Why not use that?

Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

California’s new math framework, under attack for slowing down the fast learners, also will fail students who struggle with math, he writes.

The What Works Clearinghouse summarizes the research and recommends “systematic instruction” using “clear and concise mathematical language,” “well-chosen representations” and “number lines,” he writes. Teachers should “provide deliberate instruction on word problems” and “regularly include timed activities to build fluency.”

The 2022 California Math Framework, which is 1,100 pages long, doesn’t cite a single one of the 43 studies in the guide. “Zero,” writes Loveless. Instead, the framework relies on “wishful thinking — every student will succeed if teachers simply follow the framework’s commands — and the attitude that the topic is outside the framework’s mandate.”

It appears that the framework’s ideological commitment to the principle that all students should be treated the same — same curriculum, same instruction — is the primary reason why the extensive literature on struggling students is ignored. The framework’s second ideological commitment is to inquiry.  Topics are organized around “big ideas” and “drivers of investigation.”  Inquiry methods have a century-long checkered history, particularly for struggling students in the primary grades.

The inquiry-heavy 1992 framework set off “Math Wars” in California, Loveless recalls.

Inquiry advocates oppose evidence-based teaching, such as explicit, systematic instruction.

The framework also rejects timed activities to build fluency, “arguing that an emphasis on speed creates math anxiety,” writes Loveless. Again, the evidence shows that students have trouble learning new things if they’re still struggling with basic addition and multiplication facts. (I remember tutoring a ninth-grader in algebra: Faced with 3 x 9, she guessed, incorrectly, then looked for a calculator and then, with my help, figured out the answer. It took a long time.)

The State Board of Education should reject the framework when it comes up for approval in July, Loveless concludes.

Yesterday’s post on the “reading wars” notes that an education professor ignored decades of research to promote a curriculum that encouraged guessing.

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