Friday, March 14, 2008

What Should America Do About Math?

I don't have time to think through this in depth, but a blue-ribbon government panel on math has released their final report. I don't have time to read through the report right now (but you can), since I'm still finishing my presentation for tomorrow, but some things jump out based on the article the NY Times published.

- The report lays out when children should know what. This seems like a step in the direction of national standards . . . which could lead to a national curriculum and a national test.

-Apparently American students are the weakest when it comes to fractions and the argument is presented that improving knowledge of fractions should be the main focus. I've read elsewhere that fractions are growing less and less relevant in today's world. I wonder if rebuts or otherwise addresses this claim.

-It argues for a math curriculum focused on deep understanding of the subject matter (fewer topics, more depth). This goes well with Bill Schmidt's criticism that U.S. math curricula are "a mile wide and an inch deep."

-This quote says it all about education research (basically, we can never seem to figure out anything definitively):

“There is no basis in research for favoring teacher-based or student-centered instruction,” Dr. Larry R. Faulkner, the chairman of the panel, said at a briefing on Wednesday. “People may retain their strongly held philosophical inclinations, but the research does not show that either is better than the other.”


Anonymous said...

I have no math background, so perhaps I see things too simplistically. But it seems clear to me, that we should look at how countries who do well in math teach it, and then duplicate their process.
Articles I've seen indicate we cover too much, too fast. We need students to be adept at a skill before they move on.
Also, elementary teachers as a rule aren't math experts. We need to have math experts reformulate math textbooks from the earliest grades. My nephew, a high school student math ace, says students he tutors have entirely wrong methods of solving problems. He says sometimes their methods will work for the current problem, but when they advance it won't work anymore. The problem is that their teachers, probably liberal arts majors, don't know that.
Since we are unlikely to get math experts to teach elementary school teachers (my nephew, the future engineer or economist has NO desire to teach a class of children), we need to give elementary teachers better texts created by math experts, using the methods of successful countries as a model.
I think the textbook is clearly the key; and if math textbooks are like English textbooks, they have been basically the same for the past 40 years with some cosmetic updating.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Like I said, you are not the only one who feels that we try to teach too much, too fast here. William Schmidt (from Michigan State) has compared how math is taught in the U.S. and other countries and determined that a major problem is that our curriculum is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

That said, what receives very little attention is that the national math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have actually risen quite dramatically over the past decade or two (while reading scores have essentially remained flat). There are certainly some math textbooks that haven't changed much in decades, but there is probably also more innovation in math curricula than there has been in other curricula during that time frame. Since education is so localized in the U.S., the way math is taught varies widely throughout the country.