Sunday, November 21, 2010

Another "new" mathematics for American schools

Odd that standards of mathematical literacy have gone steadily downhill as time-proven methods are abandoned. "New" methods of teaching mathematics are just a way of making education professors feel important and clever. They are in fact neither. Only a third-rater would be an education professor these days

Pay attention to what our children are being taught. Not even simple arithmetic is safe from progressive stupidity.

We moved here in June of 2005, with the first of our four children entering kindergarten in 2007. Like many other conservatives who have been caught sleeping at philosophy's wheel, we stupidly assumed that those persons running the local school district would hold values roughly in line with our own. We could not have been more wrong.

By now our second child has entered kindergarten, and having done our homework, we have since learned that our school board is ideologically homogeneous, far-left, and directly tied to both Gettysburg College and the local chapter of Democracy for America. A relational diagram of the whole matter would use up an entire box of chalk.

Midway through the previous century, the United States had the best public schools in the world; now it ranks near the bottom of developed nations (not because of any conservative initiatives) despite massive infusions of federal cash. Cognizant of this fact, my wife and I have taken a highly proactive approach to the proper education of our children, often broaching various subject matter with them well before the school does. This yielded good results up until my 8-year-old daughter began second-grade arithmetic.

A few of the math worksheets she brought home initially confounded us, making use of "number stories," where math problems were presented in pyramids or in bidirectional horizontal rows. This week, she was informed at school that her parents had taught her math "the old way" and that it was "confusing and a step behind." (I have politely conveyed to the school, in writing, of my extreme displeasure with having my authority challenged.)

As it turns out, our school district is using a controversial math curriculum called Everyday Mathematics, also known as "Reform Math." EM, as Everyday Mathematics is referred to by teachers, was developed by the University of Chicago, and according to their website, it is in use by about three million students nationwide.

What becomes immediately clear is that several extra steps are now necessary to accomplish simple beeline computations. More steps will result in more errors -- only an idiot would claim otherwise. Eventually, EM students are taught four ways to add, five ways to subtract, four ways to multiply, and two ways to divide (traditional long division has been eschewed completely). Rote memorization is de-emphasized, and calculators (as well as estimating) are introduced in grade two.

Here is the basic rationale behind EM, directly from the University of Chicago website: "Research has shown that teaching the standard U.S. algorithms fails with large numbers of children, and that alternative algorithms are often easier for children to understand and learn. For this reason, Everyday Mathematics introduces children to a variety of alternative procedures in addition to the customary algorithms".

Links to or excerpts of said research are not provided -- we are to simply take these statements as fact. EM further claims to "make mathematics accessible to all students" by:
Incorporating individual, partner, and small group activities that make it possible for teachers to provide individualized feedback and assistance.

Encouraging risk-taking by establishing a learning environment that respects multiple problem solving strategies.

Building in multiple exposures to concepts and skills and providing frequent opportunities for review and practice.

Here is what the creators of EM have to say about calculators:
Based on research that has shown calculator use can enhance cognitive gains in the areas of number sense, conceptual development and visualization, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends the integration of calculators into mathematics programs for all grade levels.

Number sense? While there is such a thing (according to Wikipedia), its definition points more to the use of an abacus (which every grade school classroom should have) than a calculator. That researchers or professional educators could make a statement so meaningless and inconclusive is mortifying.

Naturally, progressives will arrogantly foist this garbage upon their favorite groups of imaginary downtrodden.

Few things could more useless than a system of math instruction concocted by developmental psychologists, and serious questions must be raised about the real effects (and intent) of EM. Human beings have been performing simple math since hunter-gatherers realized they had digits and things that needed to be counted.

Only a starry-eyed progressive fool would attempt improvement upon methods of simple addition and subtraction, which were used by Franklin, Edison, and Einstein. After a dozen hazy summers, perhaps my children will be the only graduates here in Adams County who are able to figure out how many bushels of fruit can be had from twenty thousand acres of trees.


Some promising new policies for British schools announced

Two truly radical initiatives were announced by the Government last week that made less of an impact on public discourse than they deserved. Almost lost to view amid the jubilation over The Wedding, and the spectacular vindication of the Eurosceptic cause, these proposals could have as tumultuous an effect on Britain’s future as any political reforms in the past half-century.

The first had such a brief spell in the limelight – before being swept away in a tide of engagement-ring photos – that it may yet have escaped the notice of most of the population. This was Michael Gove’s statement that all schools will be able to apply for academy [charter] status if they affiliate themselves with a school that has been judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted.

The implications of this seemingly small step are at least as significant as the new emphasis on grammar and spelling to be promised in the White Paper. While initially only outstanding schools could become academies and thus be liberated from local education authority control, now any school will be able to do so provided that it is prepared to join with another that has proved itself to be successful and – most important – competently led.

At a stroke, this permits good schools, and good head teachers, to extend their influence over poorer ones. It makes a reality of what every government has hoped to achieve in education: spreading “best practice” throughout the system, pulling the standards of under-performing schools up to the level of better ones by allowing the best to become active mentors to the others.

In logistical (and political) terms, it will avoid what might have been a damaging effect of the free schools policy. Instead of poor schools having to be seen to fail, in a long, painful process of losing student numbers through parental choice and thus losing funding – with their gradual decline becoming a source of national shame and local outcry – those schools that might have died a lingering death may now save themselves by being adopted by a successful one.

No one can pretend that this solution will be unproblematic. Will the outstanding school actually take over the less good one? Will this oblige it to absorb disruptive pupils or incompetent staff? Or alternatively, might the association be so nominal that it will have little effect on the standards of the poorer school?

But coupled with Mr Gove’s other neglected pronouncement – that education funding is to be handed direct to schools, thus avoiding the overweening political influence of local education authorities – this measure just might help to achieve a stunning improvement in the quality of state education. Of course, such school affiliations will require the sincere desire to improve on the one hand, and a genuine commitment to offer guidance on the other, but these will be the responsibility of heads and teachers: the Gove mechanisms are offering as great an opportunity for national educational improvement as any politician could humanly manage.

Remarkably consistent with this move toward self-reliance and mutual assistance among schools was the second of last week’s policy launches: what has become known, inevitably, as the “John Lewis” model for restructuring public services. Offering an invitation – and even a small pot of start-up money – to public sector staff willing to take over and run the hospital, job centre or whatever in which they are employed, is a move of stunning political bravery.

Not that the concept is all that original in itself. (It has an ancestor, after all, in the co-operative movement.) Labour actually put a tentative, under-publicised toe in the water of mutualism as a formula for more productive and efficient public services, but it lacked the conviction to present the idea with anything like the gusto and evangelical commitment with which Francis Maude is now selling the Tory version.

The basic theory is simple and incontrovertible: staff who are what John Lewis calls “partners” in the enterprise – who share ownership of it and benefit directly when it is doing well – have a stake in its efficiency, productiveness and popularity with clients of a kind that no time-serving employee is likely to possess. This would also have the effect of “localising” the service and making it more responsive: staff who knew and understood the needs of their own community would be free to adapt their approach to suit those specific requirements, rather than simply carrying out impersonal diktats passed down from central government. (This is a consistent government objective: the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, wants to devolve planning power from politicians down to real people in real neighbourhoods.)

Again, there are some obvious risks which the Government, in spite of its eagerness to be un-prescriptive – to go for bottom-up suggestions rather than top-down formulae – will have to guard against. When an earlier Conservative government ordered councils to disband their direct labour forces and take competitive bids for contracted work instead, too many of them simply permitted their labour gangs to form “companies” whose tenders for council contracts were, mysteriously, always successful. So the same old people ended up doing the same old jobs with as little enthusiasm as ever.

If employees are to bid to become owners and managers of a service-providing business, then they must, like the staff of John Lewis, be exposed to real competition in something like a real marketplace. Otherwise, this whole venture will end up as nothing but a species of producer capture. But mention the words “market” and “competition” and you bring a sneer to the lips of Labour/trade union axe-grinders. How can anything as crass as the principles of retailing be applied to areas such as health and social services? Getting access to chemotherapy isn’t like buying cereal, they breathe piously.

Except that, in the terms which we are discussing, it might be better if it was: why shouldn’t medical treatment and social care involve more informed choice and more respect for individual preferences? This is not about “privatisation”. It is about creating an analogous kind of power to the one people are accustomed to exercising as consumers.

There is a theme here. From its welfare and education reforms to a revolution in the running of public services, the Government has a Big Idea which involves personal freedom within the bounds of community responsibility. This is worthy of all the attention we can give it.


British teachers given a few new powers to discipline pupils

Teachers will be given new powers to discipline pupils as part of a government plan to restore order in classrooms. An education white paper being published next week will give school staff the right to confiscate mobile phones, iPods, MP3 players and other electronic gadgets. For the first time, teachers will be able to search pupils for any item they believe troublemakers can use to cause disruption during lessons.

The move follows a series of incidents in which pupils have taken photos and videos of teachers then uploaded compromising images on to the internet. Last year, Peter Harvey, a science teacher, attacked a 14-year-old boy after being goaded by students who covertly filmed the episode on a camera phone.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, warned that the balance of power in schools had shifted in recent years, with teachers “living in fear of breaking the rules while troublemaking students felt the law was on their side”. The reforms, which are designed to tackle bad behaviour, will give staff the power to search pupils for any item, including legal highs, pornography, cigarettes and fireworks.

Previously, teachers could only frisk pupils’ clothes and search bags without consent for weapons, drugs, alcohol and stolen goods. The white paper will also set out plans to:

* Simplify rules on the use of physical force, giving teachers more powers to remove disruptive children from the classroom without fear of legal action;

* Protect teachers from false and malicious allegations made by pupils and parents, giving them anonymity until a case reaches court;

* Give head teachers the power to expel pupils from school without the decision being overturned by an independent appeals panel;

* Allow teachers to impose “same day” detentions, scrapping rules that require schools to give parents a 24-hour warning;

* Introduce rules giving head teachers the ability to punish pupils for bad behaviour outside school.

Mr Gove said teachers “had to be respected again”. “Under the last Government’s approach to discipline, heads and teachers lived in fear of breaking the rules while troublemaking students felt the law was on their side,” he said. “We have to stop treating adults like children and children like adults. “We will ensure that the balance of power in the classroom changes and teachers are back in charge.”


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