Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Surviving the Math Wars - Both Ends Against the Middle

Identity Crisis...

I imagined the following dialogue taking place between a traditionalist (T) and a reformist (R) after both had finished reading the posts I've written on this blog for the past 6-7 months:

T: He is definitely a radical reformer. He uses phrases like investigations, explorations, discovery-learning, problem-solving, working in groups and encourages the use of the calculator for some activities. He is more concerned with conceptual understanding than with content and skills that all students must know. He actually believes that young children can think profoundly about concepts before they have completely mastered their skills. He talks 'less is more.' He has no documented research base for any of his wild ideas, and pretends that decades of classroom instruction are just as legitimate as a carefully developed research study. In what accredited journal of education research has he published?

R: Nonsense. He's one of your kind. He preaches strong foundation in basic skills, automaticity of basic facts, facility with percents, decimals and fractions and generally does not promote the use of the calculator in the lower grades. Other than some esoteric mortgage activity he wrote, most of his math challenges have little to do with the real world, focusing instead on number theory and combinatorial math, topics which are above the heads of most middle schoolers. His geometry problems are very traditional. He is often critical of calculator use. He focuses on standards and curriculum, even suggesting we need a nationalized math curriculum (and we know who will determine that!). He doesn't even applaud the efforts of his own national math teacher organization. He covers up his 'back to basics' approach by pretending he is a centrist. We all know one cannot be a centrist here. Either you're pregnant or you're not! He has no documented research base for any of his wild ideas, and pretends that decades of classroom instruction are just as legitimate as a carefully developed research study. In what accredited journal of education research has he published?

I know the regular readers of this blog know who I am and I know where their heart lies, but what can be done to move math education into a zone of reality that is sorely needed for our children. All these wonderful ideas but there is still so much confusion out there. How far have we come in the past dozen years or so to change the reality of a curriculum that is 'one inch deep and one mile wide'? Your thoughts are welcome...


Mr. Lucchese said...

I don't have any idea what can be done to bring about an end to the math wars, Dave. I can tell you this, though. As a soon-to-be teacher and a pragmatic centrist, I am terribly concerned about being misunderstood and maligned by both camps. I do not understand why there can't be some sort of compromise. As long as the argument rages unabated, it is a disservice to students everywhere.

Dave Marain said...

thanks for the input...
you and I will survive, but as you pointed out, the victims are the kids.
Fortunately, no matter how prescriptive the math curriculum in your district may be, creative educators will always find a way to supplement, enrich and blend the best of what has always been good for students with the best of what we know today. A Unit on Investigations in Data can always include skill practice in fundamentals. If you're committed to teaching for understanding while expecting procedures to be performed correctly with and without the calculator, your students will thrive. You will always know in your heart what is right, no matter what you hear from others. I'm used to being maligned by both camps, although, more often, I'm ignored or treated dismissively. I keep on keeping on because my conscience and my instincts tell me what our children need to learn. Quite frankly, if it weren't so tragic, all of this political rhetoric would be comical. Just remember, the extremists are selling books and getting lots of attention. If the extremists are offended by any of these remarks, I must be on the right track!!

Seriously, you will meet wonderful educators from whom you will learn much. Most will be guided by commonsense regardless of the latest fad or program the district has bought into. Hey, if you ever need support, you have the frequent contributors to this blog and me too!

Mr. Lucchese said...

Thank you for you supportive words, Dave. Hopefully, with advice from you and dy/dan, I'll be just fine. (And so will my students.)

Jackie Ballarini said...

As Tony stated, I too worry (next year will be first year as a math teacher - just finished student teaching in spring and am teaching summer school now).

I don't want to define myself as "traditional" or "reformist". I've seen benefits and drawbacks to both. I think there has to be some middle ground that strives for understanding, problem solving abilities, computational fluency, and number sense (among other traits). I'll be teaching two sections of a "reform" curriculum next year. My biggest worry is how I will deal with parent concerns. My experience is the parents read the rhetoric from the "anti-reform" camps and jump on the bandwagon.

I want to do whatever best serves the students I have at that moment. Will it be the same for every student and every class? I doubt it. Will I use aspects of both? I hope so.

Thanks for thought provoking post. I wish I had an answer.

Dave Marain said...

Your district has a responsibility to inform parents of the content and objectives of the math curriculum. I'm assuming this has been done. From reading your astute comments there is no doubt in my mind that your students will get the best of both world. Some parents will be extremists and scream the 'back to basics' rhetoric. However, my experience is that most parents are rational and will listen to someone who is honest, knowledgeable and makes sense. Tell parents that the curriculum and your instruction in particular promote conceptual understanding and problem-solving, precisely those skills that are tested on the SATs and other standardized tests. At the same time tell them your beliefs regarding the need for computational proficiency and the need for memorization and practice. They will applaud you! Trust me on this. I've been addressing parents for a very long time. I've never been misunderstood or booed! By the way, I almost always begin parent presentations (Back to School Night for example) with a challenge problem, like those digit problems I post. The confident math people in the audience try solving it immediately and are usually wrong. At this point I have their attention. They appreciate the fact that success in math requires skills, strategies and reasoning, but, most of all, frequent exposure to challenging problems that push students beyond...
Thank you for your many contributions!

Jackie Ballarini said...

Thanks for the reassurance. I think I'm just getting a little antsy planning for the year. (I'm better when I'm actually doing than when I'm thinking about doing).

Yep, mapping has been done & shared, so thanks for that reminder.

As for my students getting the best of both worlds, that is my goal. Will I achieve it next year? Probably not to my satisfaction, but hopefully I'll keep getting better. I know part of my ongoing growth is due to reading blogs such as yours!

mathmom said...

I'm a little confused as to why you're all so concerned about labels -- labeling yourselves or having others label you.

As for parents, I think most will readily accept that, as with most such pendulum swings, the optimal position is somewhere in the middle. The fact that you are going to try to give your students the best of both approaches will surely be appreciated by parents.

Good luck to all of you!

Dave Marain said...

Although it appears that I am defensive and overly exercised about these labels, I am not. Parents for the most part are fine with a balanced approach to curriculum and will be supportive, the Ridgewood, NJ controversy notwithstanding.

I hope most of my readers recognize that I wrote this post in a satirical vein to puncture some of the pompousness of the fanatics out there. I do not feel I need to justify my position. But I did want to help others who are new to this to get a perspective on what is occurring throughout the country. My imaginings are NOT that far from statements I have actually heard. A well-known individual who contributes frequently to math websites (and now has his own blog) has told me that many reformers view me with distrust, and, in fact, are confused where my allegiances lie. They just don't get it: My allegiances lie with children and what is in their best interests. Personally, I could care less about whether anyone feels I'm with them or not.

Fifty years from now, people will be speaking of this period of time in math education as the Dark Ages. While other nations have moved forward with curricula that are more demanding both in depth and breadth, we're trying to figure out how to insure that all children and schools make their benchmarks. Each state continues to develop its own loosely-defined vague standards and assessments based on these questionable goals. Were it not so harmful to our students, it would be ludicrous. The work of the American Diploma Project gives me some hope however, although I need to read more.

My greater concern is for young teachers who are entering the profession and may feel confused or even intimidated by the rancor expressed by some individuals out there on the web or elsewhere. There are individuals from the university level on down who fanatically embrace one position or another in all of this and are hypercritical, demeaning and intolerant of others' points of view. I have responded to such individuals for 15 years, attempting to be a moderate voice and bring reason to the table. However, there has been little or no softening of their diametrically opposite positions and I've come to realize that it's not worth my time.

I no longer contribute to math discussion groups such as MathTalk, MathLearn, etc., precisely because the tone of these forums became overly negative often engaging in personal ad hominem attacks. I started this blog to focus my energies on real content, choosing to avoid politics as much as possible, other than my call for a national math curriculum of world-class stature.

The readers of this blog and their own blogs are the voices of reason that make me feel there is hope out there for the future. But do not underestimate the pathology that exists. If we don't recognize its virulence, it will continue to do harm to our children. Mathmom, you are able to help your children and others learn math the right way. Most parents are not so fortunate...

mathmom said...

You're right Dave, that I'm pretty lucky to be able to remain naive about all the rancor that surrounds the "math wars". It seems that around here, even when curricula are prescribed in the public schools, many teachers do right by the kids and teach a good balanced program. I was actually very impressed by the math problem solving work I saw going on at the local public school when my kids went there. This program started in 3rd grade, and was in fact motivated by our state's standards and accountability methods (before NCLB). It is the only good thing I've ever seen come from statewide testing programs. ;-)

concernedCTparent said...

Dave, as a parent in the middle of the madness I can tell you that we agree on the most important aspect of this issue... it's about the children. I really don't care who is right (or left), R or T, conservative or progressive, I just want my children to reach their potential. I want them to be able to hold their own when they go to college and not be at a disadvantage as compared to a child from Singapore or Boston or anywhere else. I want them to have choices and opportunities.

This debate has been going on for decades and it won't be resolved in time for my children to benefit from the voice of reason. In the meantime, I have to be that voice of reason. It is my duty to hold the powers that be accountable all the while knowing that ultimately, I am responsible for assuring that my child is educated according to his/her needs.

Dave Marain said...

Can you clone yourself!
Actually, I believe you represent a view of many concerned parents who want only the best education for their children. Despite all of the noise out there, our educational system is still evolving and ultimately we will all be moving in the right direction. However, it's so difficult to see the light when one is in the eye of the storm. The key is that parents such as yourself not only are passionate but, thanks to the internet, can become highly informed in a very short time. Of course, one has to be careful about the authenticity of sources but you will quickly discern who is honest and knowledgeable in this debate. Here's my acid test: If one is absolutely certain of their position, be wary! I don't profess to know all the answers, but I surely will continue to raise many questions!

Dave Marain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
concernedCTparent said...

If one is absolutely certain of their position, be wary!

Definitely a worthy "acid test".

As a parent I would be kidding myself if I believed I knew all the answers either, but you can bet your boots I'm going to die trying. And yes, always consider the source (and the motive) when you research. Double checking facts and stats doesn't hurt either.

Fortunately there are many parents who feel as I do and are finding the motivation, resources and need to educate themselves on the fine points.

In the best scenario parents and teachers embark on team effort and have the same objectives at heart. Keep up the good work!

You can bet I'll be checking in to see what you have to say.