Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More On Math Pedagogy

I was thinking some more about the math article that I posted about yesterday.
As Alan Schoenfeld, the lead author of the high school standards in the 1989 NCTM report, put it, “the traditional curriculum was a vehicle for . . . the perpetuation of privilege.” The new approach would change all that.


The progressive educators...support “integrated” approaches to teaching math—that is, teaching topics from all areas of mathematics every year, regardless of logical sequence and student mastery of each step—and they downplay basic arithmetic skills and practice, encouraging kids to use calculators from kindergarten on.

These two passages stuck out in my mind because if undermining the perpetuation of privilege was their goal, then it seems that it might have backfired in a big way.

Something changed in my elementary school math curriculum between the time when I was there and when my brother went through four years later. Sounds like this progressive curriculum stuff had kicked in. The teacher sent home a not with my brother that he need a calculator. My mother called the teacher and said he wouldn't be getting a calculator until he had memorized his multiplication tables at the earliest. I remember distinctly when my mother, who was not one to lose her cool, almost yelled, "What do you mean you aren't making the students learn their multiplication tables by heart anymore?!"

This began what the article describes as the "Math Wars" in our school. My parents along many others launched into a tizzy and got the curriculum changed so that the children needed to know their multiplication tables as well as some other things that I can't remember right now. Maybe long division was reinstated. Not sure. But I am positive about the multiplication tables. Years later, I heard the calculator only crowd won out.

That's not the reason that I suspect this progressive curriculum thing backfired. The reason is the socio-economic make-up of the group of parents who went into school to complain. It was the doctors and lawyers and engineers and bankers. You know, the upper and upper middle class types. And this wasn't really about their kids either. My mother was adamant that my brother was going to learn those multiplication tables. If the school wasn't going to teach them you could rest assured she was going to do it herself. Or if things got too bad he'd be put in private school. Ditto for the rest of the parents who complained. This wasn't necessarily about their kids learning the multiplication tables, but for the benefit of the kids whose parents didn't have the time or knowledge to complain.* And also for their own kids in the future because lack of multiplication tables belied a weakening in the curriculum broadly.

And that's where I think this thing backfires. If Miss FLG isn't taught the multiplication tables at school, then I'll sure as hell teach her. If I don't think she knows how to add, subtract, multiple, and divide fractions, then I'll sure as hell teach her. Same for long division, algebra, geometry, and calculus. Dumbing down the curriculum may undermine so-called privilege within the classroom, but exacerbates it in the real world. It doesn't help the kid whose parents dropped out of high school keep up with my kid. It just creates the illusion of it while making the discrepancy worse.

* Don't get me wrong, all the parents preferred not to have to spend time teaching themselves what they rightfully thought the schools should be.

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