Textbook Disasters

As if we needed something more to raise our concerns about our children’s education comes a blog post from the belly of the beast of math textbook creation.

Be afraid, be very afraid. It’s like reading reports about Big 3 auto operations right as the Japanese started cleaning their clocks.

There may be a reason you can’t figure out some of those math problems in your son or daughter’s math text and it might have nothing at all to do with you. That math homework you’re trying to help your child muddle through might include problems with no possible solution. It could be that key information or steps are missing, that the problem involves a concept your child hasn’t yet been introduced to, or that the math problem is structurally unsound for a host of other reasons.

It’s enough to make you a bit ill about what we’re subjecting our kids to.

9 thoughts on “Textbook Disasters”

  1. Bad math is serious, but not the major problem. Most teachers do not understand the math they teach, no matter what is in the textbook.

    I went to a “good” school. I often didn’t understand what they were talking about. As a child, I learned decimal arithmetic and the manipulation of fractions and ratios from the understandable presentation in the World Book Encyclopedia.

    Our kid’s school experience is to sit for 7 hours each day, listening to propaganda, drawing exactly what the teacher wants, and being asked about what mommy and daddy are doing at home. The only defense for the parents is to exclude the children from any part of adult life.

    The school monotony is broken by short exercise periods, similar to prison, no running, shouting, or any interesting playground equipment. They don’t yet require the children to walk around in a big circle.

    Nanny government complains that children are fat, snacking, watching TV, and playing video games. That same government shows parents that they will be arrested if their kids play outdoors, walk to school, ride a bicycle without sufficient armor, injure themselves in any way, or say anything to an official which might, maybe, possibly be related to some sort of abuse.

    The only way to somewhat soothe the bored, restrained, closely watched children is to sit them in front of TV and let them play video games.

    Many places want children to ride in automobile booster seats until they are eight. The explanation is that this reduces injury and death in children. I say that all adults must be required to wear 4-point seat belts, protective helmets, and leg guards. This would reduce the injury and death of parents who are still highly important to providing for their children.

    Children are vastly more important now than 50 years ago. At that time, children were encouraged to learn and work to support themselves. Now, each child is more precious. Each must be trained to support all parents and grandparents in the style to which they have voted themselves benefits through their wise and caring government.

  2. I read the article, and I forwarded it to my daughter who is an assistant editor at a project that writes k-12 math texts, and to my wife, who wrote a book about the cognitive psychology of math learning. Neither of them seem to be real agitated by it. My wife gives lectures to conventions of math teachers, and she hasn’t gotten any feedback about the kinds of problems the author cites.

  3. Modern math is taught quite differently than it was when I was young. It starts with set theory now which is very difficult for parents taught the old way. This is a better way forward in many ways, for one it take the kids to a place where calculus is not the big problem it was when I got to it in Engineering school.

    I would not, from that article, conclude that the writer knows enough math to usefully criticize the stuff she was editing.

  4. “the reason they were part of the product specs is because Common Core State Standards have been officially adopted by 43 states (ascd.org) and publishers are racing to make sure their products address them. This is how the senior executive answered my query: “It doesn’t matter if there aren’t enough correlations; our marketing materials say only that we ‘expose’ students to Common Core.”


    Yes. One secret of the Common Core is that the drive to Federalize public education is designed to disproportionately favor products from just a few mega-publishers and testing companies, notably Pearson, who will enjoy monopoly rents while driving the remainder out of business. Ditto with charter schools – a temporary waystation to large education management companies running all the public schools in a city, county or state on contract (when the govt. will crackdown on homeschooling and private schools not brought under this system).

  5. I’ve seen the same problem in my children’s math and science books. Poor questions and teachers who don’t hae any understanding of the subject.

    Add in reports and notes from teachers full of misspellings and ungrammatical wordings, and I have little faith in government schools.

    In the the State of California it is not REQUIRED that children through age 8 sit in booster seats. Yet our numbnuts legislators can’t balance the budget.

  6. It is worse than this. Obama is now promulgating national curriculum standards which include dumbed down versions of math. In California, currently you are supposed to be able to work with fractions and decimals by the 5th grade. Under the new curricula, you will only have to recognize them. US students will be two years behind by the 7th grade.

    There was apparently only one math guy on the committee who trashed the results. I don’t have a high opinion of local educators (see Wisconsin teachers) but national ones will be even worse and totally unaccountable. David Izumi has a broadside on this at Amazon, and the first review is a good summary of this situation by someone who doesn’t sound like he has a political agenda.

  7. Sounds like the “new math” unleashed on children in the late 60s – early 70s. That, and the decision of some “educators” to stop teaching phonics to help children learn reading – produced a generation of poor readers.

  8. This looks like a skirmish in the long running “Math Wars” between mathematicians and those whose “expertise” is in “Math Education.” It seems that the folly of what passes for progressive pedagogy is discovered anew every few years by parents whose children are entering school.

    Here’s a bit of history to anchor this discussion:

    A group of 200 prominent mathematicians and scientists has called on U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to rescind his department’s ringing endorsement of 10 elementary and secondary mathematics programs, arguing that the programs are damaging to children because they omit instruction in basic mathematics skills.

    While agreeing that children need to master basic skills, Riley defended the endorsed programs by claiming each had improved student learning.

    Last fall the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) endorsed a Top 10 list of elementary and secondary mathematics programs favored by its own Mathematics and Science Expert Panel. Five programs received “exemplary” status, and five others were named “promising.”

    In write-ups of the programs on the government Web site, the panelists said this about the “promising” Everyday Mathematics for K-6:

    “This enriched curriculum includes such features as problem-solving about everyday situations; linking past experiences to new concepts; sharing ideas through discussion; developing concept readiness through hands-on activities and explorations; cooperative learning through partner and small-group activities; and enhancing home-school partnerships.”

    To which San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders responded: “Sounds more like marriage counseling than math class.”

    Indeed, virtually all of the DoEd-blessed curricula extol the merits of “real world” or “real life” applications of math, with lots of group work, partner quizzes, student role-playing, journals with children’s entries on how they feel about math, copious use of calculators, and group estimating. That’s according to the official descriptions.

    In general, the federal government’s Top 10 are from what is called the ‘Whole Math’ genre — a kissing cousin of Whole Language — where basic skills and teacher-directed instruction are played down in favor of pupil-led discovery, or constructivism.

    Much more at the link.

    If you delve into the history of this battle you see that the “Math educators” are really pushing an ideological approach designed to bring about desired social goals whereas the mathematicians are advocating for methods which improve content mastery.

    It’s well known that education majors in universities are drawn from the bottom of intellectual barrel, on average, and the ripple effects of this low level of human capital manifest in the agendas that develop – “Math educators” claim expertise in the education of mathematics which they believe sets them up as experts on this subject and thus gives their views on math curricula and reforms more gravitas than the views held by professional mathematicians who actually DO and TEACH math. The battle in this field is simply an extension of the thinking that now dominates the field of education – content mastery for the teacher is not a basis upon which they claim their “professionalism,” rather their “professionalism” is based on their expertise in “knowing how to teach.”

    The upshot of the dim (professors) teaching the dim (education majors) is that their standards of scholarship would be laughed out of other academic disciplines, to whit:

    This study is trotted out as “evidence” in support of the claims put forth by “Math educators” that their reforms are producing stellar results.

    Here is Cal State Professor of Mathematics Prof. Wayne Bishop ripping it apart:

    Let me start with their conclusions:

    “No significant differences were found between the groups with respect to traditional mathematics achievement. However, students in the two standards-based curricula significantly outperformed the control group in mathematics problem solving. No differences in mathematics problem solving were found between students in the two standards-based curricula. No gender differences in traditional mathematics achievement or mathematics problem solving were found. Mathematics problem solving scores for African American students in the two standards-based curricula were significantly higher than scores for African American students in the Control group.” . . . . . . .

    Putting aside the fact that the “Control” is neither pre-Standards nor alternatively reform, how good of a study is this? Well, of the 14,000 students in this district, one would assume over 1000 in Grade 6. This study involves 46 of them. Out of this group, 8 students were African American so the conclusion that the “African American students in the two standards-based curricula were significantly higher” is a comparison with performance from 8 students already in a Standards-based curriculum.

    In fact, well-balanced groups of small numbers of students might give some preliminary information about the mathematical growth of students that would be worthy of reporting (there were 94 in the CMP group and 115 in the STEM) if they were very carefully studied. Was that the case here? No such thing. We get no information on how the 46 were chosen, no correlating verbal data, nor do we get any “before” data on the students, only “after”. Thus, it is impossible to tell from the data how much, if any, of the final results could be attributed to the programs being studied. Amazingly, the Control didn’t even take the same principal test.

    Just to add some icing to the cake, take a gander at some of the content that passes for graduate level education in the field of “Math Education.”

    With that out of the way, I’ll flip my criticism and direct some of it towards the Salon author’s sloppy research. It’s not true that the US educational system is producing students who lag behind 30 other industrialized nations in terms of mastery of mathematics. The value added of US education actually produces very good results when race is controlled for in the international comparisons. The culprit which explains declining US math performance is demographic change. It should be noted that even with demographics controlled we have not seen the promised rise in math performance that should be expected based on the claims made by the “math educators.” This begs the question of why, if their “studies” show evidence of increased math comprehension, that math performance isn’t improving from the pre-reform era to the present era. To be fair this also sets up the countervailing position of why, if these reforms are so amateurish and ineffective, we haven’t seen disastrous declines in math performance. I don’t have the answer to that question. I suspect that the concurrent rise of private tutoring corporations in the commercial sphere has something to do with masking the decline, as well as parents increasingly stepping in and tutoring their children, compared to parents of earlier generations who left the teaching to the teachers and focused on parenting, once they witness, or suspect, that their children are being propagandized instead of educated and my final speculation is that the international tests, with demography controlled, don’t have the range required to parse outcomes based on methods of teaching, by which I mean the range of difficulty is too low to create a distribution which actually measures math comprehension – think of a writing test which asks students to write their name and everyone passes and such a test doesn’t really tell us much about language instruction methods.

    The Salon writer makes a number of errors but her errors don’t invalidate her primary thesis that there is something rotten in the state of math education.

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