David Foster’s post on the Blatherification of America, specifically based on this post over at Joanne Jacob’s site by guest blogger Diana Senechal, reminded me of my own problems with the American educational system.
I have a daughter in first grade. Although Blatherification is evident in her classroom, it is probably the least of my concerns. I’m a physical chemist by primary training, but I make my living with my MBA in Marketing, so this is not a Snowian Two Cultures disconnect. The No Child Gets Ahead errr… No Child Left Behind standards have had a pernicious effect on education, and nowhere is this more evident than in the phenomenon of curriculum reorganization.
What I mean is that the order of presentation of topics in the curriculum have been changed around since I finished Elementary School in the late 70s. This is a parallel phenomenon to Blatherification in the educational system was recently and forcefully brought to my attention. The primary purpose of this seems to be Baffling Parents With BS. Educators talk about what higher level skills they are passing on to children. Educational charlatans are counting on the fact that parents’ memories of school are somewhat fuzzy in order to pass off topic order shuffling as an improvement in instruction over time. Teachers and administrators often use phrasing such as “we didn’t do this or that so early when I was in school”. Yes. Neither did I. And maybe there was a good reason for that.
Coinciding with this is an over-emphasis on some topics which do not need much repetition for the middle and upper tiers of students. The reason for this, at least in my state, is a total lack of “tracking” before 4th or 5th grade – each classroom has an equal mix of students with abilities running, at least at the beginning of first grade, from literate and numerate, to a bare ability to count and correlate letters with their primary sounds.* Behaviorally, the mix is just as varied.
I would like to illustrate how both of these problems came to a head the other night when I attended an after school meeting to describe the mathematics curriculum. First, a little about the demographics of my town. I live in an area that is not very economically attractive. My company and one other high science concern are the major employers in the region. Most of the highly educated people in the towns surrounding my worksite are from other parts of the country. In fact, many are not from the US altogether.
I noticed about half the audience in the math curriculum meeting were natives of the region from the lower economic strata. Their concern was that their kids were going to fall behind in math because they did not do well in school themselves, especially in math. They were happy for any bone the district was throwing in their direction. The other half were nearly all immigrants, and since I work with many of them, I counted at least 5 other Ph.D.s in science besides myself. The educators had a rough time of it. They were not prepared for this bifurcated distribution of abilities and interests, which pretty much throws into sharp relief my concerns about their lack of tracking of the kids of these very same parents.
Things started off badly from my perspective. The math coordinator for the district began his lecture by talking about how bad rote algorithms were, and how we were not taught when doing long division what each columns (the ones, 10s and hundreds columns) actually represented. Not so fast. I remember clearly writing the numbers 1, 10, and 100 over those columns when first learning long division. I also remember those silly function engine exercises with the drawing of a machine with a crank and a gear for getting across the concepts of simple operators such as the 10s and 100s columns in multiplication and division. I clearly recognized BPWB from the start of the program.
Unfortunately for the teachers at my daughter’s school, I’m the progeny of a 25 year veteran Elementary School teacher. I can spot BPWB a mile away. I remember what and how I was taught in school, in part because I wound up having my own mother as a teacher. We were a rural district without enough funding when we started getting an influx of professionals from DC into the area, swelling school enrolment. As a result, the top layers of classes in 3rd and 4th or 4th and 5th grade were combined into “split grade” classrooms. The administrators made sure that the kids in the split grades classrooms were smart and well-behaved enough so that while the teacher was instructing the other grade, the kids could be counted on to work independently. It was not an ideal situation, but the teachers made it work. My mom made it work. And because I had no choice but to be a good student, I was in my mother’s classroom. For three years straight, because she was also good, and always caught the split classes. Oh sure, we changed teachers for some subjects. But I didn’t catch a break then, because every teacher in the district knew who I was. The fortunate side effect of all this 30 some year later is that I have pretty vivid memories of the classroom.
So the math coordinator pretty much got on my bad side from the start, but I held back my bile for the sake of my daughter’s classroom placement in second grade. The immigrants were muttering about how the old style of teaching was being misrepresented. I leaned over and whispered to my Russian friend that the US wasn’t really that clueless 30 years ago. He said we could not have been in order to get a man on the moon.
The math coordinator was moving blithely on, getting questions about how to help kids study at home from the more educationally clueless in the room. We moved on to multiplication. The curriculum spends a lot of time on graphic representations or actual manupulatives to teach multiplication. You know, where you make a big square or rectangle out of little squares and then count the rows and columns to hammer home the idea of what you are actually doing when you multiply.
I have no problem with this – in fact my daughter and I already do this at home. In the first grade, not the third, though. I certainly remember similar exercises back in my day. However, the school spends half a year doing this kind of prep work. I remember perhaps 2 weeks of that before we got down to facts, times tables, and longer problems. Why spend so much time? NCLB and the State standards do not reward schools for pushing good kids. Once the kid can pass the test, the school is done with them. Any elevation in the school’s scores once the middle and advanced kids can do the basic subject material is determined by how many slower kids can be pushed over the line. Which is fine, as long as the good kids still get pushed. But they don’t. No, in the Responsive Classroom, how you learn is as important as what you learn, and the good kids are expected to go back and help the slow ones. From a societal ROI on educational investment point of view, this is insane. From the point of view of NCLB school grading, it is a perfectly rational strategy.
It does not stop there. They teach a modified method of the traditional multiplication and division algorithms, where each step and “times 10” or “times 100” is explicitly written, and only then does the curriculum go on to the standard algorithms adults use. The math coordinator actually had the gall to stand up there and claim that this promotes mathematical reasoning, and that having three ways to approach a problem type was a good thing. All I could foresee is kids getting confused about which approach to take, mixing the three, and either taking far too long to complete the problem or getting it wrong altogether. In practice, having the kids jump through three hoops lets the school look as if there is progress through the year, while staying on the exact same topic so that the slowest kids finally get it. And one should not worry about the wrong answer from a confused kid, either. Kids get partial credit for setting up the problem. On a third grade multiplication test. Accountability for correct answers has been blunted on these standardized tests. No wonder scores are rising.
By this time the immigrants had had enough and were peppering the coordinator with questions. They contrasted this system with the systems they had used which were good enough to get them a Ph.D. in America, operating in a foreign language. The Principal, who holds an Education Ph.D.** said “why don’t you let the professionals handle the education”. Now I had had enough. I exploded. “That was not an appropriate comment”, I said. Then I thought of my daughter and calmed down again. And we continued on to estimating.
Estimating. It’s on the test, they have to teach it. In my experience a good estimator is made by making someone solve exact problems over and over again until relative magnitudes become second nature. Then, with that knowledge firmly under one’s belt, a person may estimate with confidence. I see no reason why an 8 year old should even try to estimate what $1.95 plus $1.90 is in whole dollars, when the kid is shaky on three-digit addition because of the lack of drill on basic skills under this kind of curriculum.
It turns out my instinct was correct, when I went to peruse the literature these “professionals” should be reading themselves. Young children tend to think logarithmically rather than linearly. They outperform adults on fractional estimation exercises, but somewhere as they mature, due to nurture more than nature, their linear estimation skills get better, to the detriment of their logarithmic skills. So it makes sense not to put linear estimation into the curriculum until children have some practice at linear operations:
Lemaire et al. illustrate that the acquisition of numerical understanding is a long process. The 10-year-olds in their study were just beginning to use computational estimation on multi-digit numbers. To become successful estimators, children seem to require both some underlying computational arithmetic skills (LeFevre, Greenham, & Waheed, 1993) and large enough working memory capacities (Case & Sowder, 1990). Thus, the results of Klein and Bisanz and of Lemaire et al. converge on the conclusion that both experiential and developmental processes are important in children’s acquisition of numeracy skills.
And yet linear estimation is part of the standardized test in 3rd grade in my state. This is clearly a case where the juggling of the traditional order of topics is detrimental to children. But it was pointed out specifically as an advance that teaches higher order thinking skills by the math coordinator.
I left the meeting more convinced than ever that I was going to have to provide most of the opportunities for my kids to practice higher order thinking skills.
Aligned with the out-of-order phenomenon is the ADD teaching methods employed now that textbooks are largely a thing of the past in the lower grades. I watch in frustration as the textbookless classrooms jump from topic to topic in order to cover an impressive number of themes, which bolsters the attempt to appear more rigorous than the education the parents received. The topic jumping is horrible for the younger kids, and unless they receive additional instruction at home, as does my daughter, there is not enough repetition to make facts stick in those little brains.
The science curriculum for this year contained about 6 subjects, one of which I do not think will be covered. The unit on magnets lasted one week, with about 3 lessons on the topic. The students came home with two worksheets, one of which seemed somewhat above their level. At the parent-teacher conference, my daughter’s teacher commented on how well my daughter knew her magnet material.
Of course she did. I knew the topic was coming. We read the Magic School Bus book on magnets over the course of a week in preparation for the school activities. We made a compass from a needle, a cork, and a bowl of water. We made chains of paper clips with different magnets and observed how some magnets are stronger than others. We magnetized things and then demagnetized them by hitting them, discussing how we were making the domains random again. We looked at magnetic fields with iron filings. And we made an electromagnet and talked about how electricity and magnetism are related. I know my daughter retains the information on magnets she learned this year because she did things with them, she read things about them, and we did that over the course of a month. (We re-read the book, too, to catch things we missed the first time). I highly doubt most of her peers remember much, two months after that one-week unit.
I no longer count on the school to properly educate my kids, and I resent the huge amount of time they waste on morning meetings and other fluff. I have given up on the American public educational system. It’s only a matter of time before I seek alternatives.
* I do not buy the argument that kids need to mix with learners of varied abilities at the lower grade levels. I taught college classes with similar distributions of abilities as a TA, with kids who did not know what a logarithm was mixed with kids who had taken calculus in high school. It was an impossible task to give a lesson that served both groups. While it is certainly possible in first grade to teach to such a spread of abilities, it is certainly not an optimal learning environment.
** One of the most useless pieces of paper on the planet. That and $3.50 will get you a small Starbucks in my world. I have a real Ph.D.