A few weeks ago I received a request for an interview from Jan Wilson, education columnist for The Parent Paper, a local publication here in northern NJ:
Hello Mr. Marain --
I am the education columnist for the Parent Paper and I am writing an article about math instruction, specifically about moving beyond the rhetoric of the math wars to discover which ways of instruction work best for K-5 students. It's going to be a fairly general article, designed for the parent who hasn't thought a lot about math before but becomes concerned because her child hasn't master times tables in 3rd grade, or isn't doing long division in 4th, for example.
The following is the reply I sent Jan from which she excerpted a few of my comments:
I am speaking both as a parent and a mathematics specialist with over 35 years in mathematics education at all levels. I have also been publishing a blog for math educators for the past year and a half. It was recognized by the Washington Post as one of the Top 10 Educational Blogs for 2007. Despite all the rhetoric, there are no bad programs out there in my opinion. The reform programs like Everyday Math and TERC do a fine job of developing children's number and spatial sense and address problem-solving as well. However, the district has to be committed to the expectation that children will practice their basic facts on a daily basis. Some children will master their times tables by the end of 3rd or 4th, some later on. However, they should all be expected to learn it by the end of 4th, even if some youngsters will take longer. Parents should not hesitate to ask the teacher and/or the principal if these expectations are in place. Further, they should ask if children are given some form of practice both in class and at home on a regular basis. Some children will learn from flash cards, others need to write each fact 5-10 times, others can benefit from games or software. Excellent online games like Timez Attack from Big Brainz can be played both in school and at home. The free version is quite good, but it will not work for every child. The only constant is that the expectation of learning these basics is stated in the currlculum and that this philosophy is actually implemented. If children's learning of basic facts is assessed regularly in class, then one can reasonably assume there is follow-through. Sometimes the only way to be sure of this is to talk to parents of children who have been through the program. Just remember: Playing games and problem-solving do not replace the need for children to memorize their facts. There is no way to get around this. If the district math program does not incorporate sufficient practice, then parents will need to supplement fact practice at home, even if it's only 10-15 minutes a day. Each child learns his/her own way, but each child must do something every day, using a reward system if needed to motivate them. In addition to skills practice supplementing existing programs as needed, parents should ask what kinds of problem-solving materials are used. Is the source of these problems restricted to what is provided by the publisher or are other resources utilized? For example, are teachers provided with the problem books from Singapore Math, which generally contains more difficult challenges than are normally found in our texts. Another question parents can ask if there is a new program is, "How have or will teachers be trained?" Is there a full-time Staff Developer working with teachers? Is there a math specialist for K-5 or 5-8? Short-term staff development is not nearly as effective as ongoing training, both for experienced and new teachers. It is important for parents to be aware that NJ Ask and other state testing will be undergoing significant changes in response to the recommendations of the National Math Panel, NCTM and organizations such as Achieve. All of these groups are calling for a reduction each year in the number of topics covered so that there will be more time for children to work toward mastery of important skills AND to develop greater depth of understanding. Teachers will be able to devote more time to provide both enrichment and reinforcement. This is an exciting opportunity. The Math Wars have been fueled by extremists on both sides. In the end, our children need a more balanced math education which will incorporate the best of the traditional and reformed.Remember, I was writing this primarily for parents. These comments represent the same positions I have taken for the past 20 years and for which I have been challenged (a euphemism for attacked) by both "sides" for the same 20 years! Hey, I may be wrong but at least I am consistent!