Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The trouble with "The Trouble with Boys"

Peg Tyre's book does a wonderful job exposing the ways in which reduced recess time, early literacy expectations, writing-intensive activities, the decline in penmanship instruction, excessive homework, zero tolerance for aggressive play, and lack of male role models have contributed to a marked decline in how well boys do in school.

But in the process, Tyre creates a faulty impression of schools as drilling and killing and pushing kids harder in academics than ever before. As she writes on pp. 84-85:
Elementary school is a conveyor belt. It moves kids from the magical world of childhood toward a more complex universe where reading and writing, concrete reasoning, abstract thought, and time-management skills are the currency of the land. In the last ten years, that conveyor belt has been speeded up. Our children are being pushed to reach the milestones of literacy and arithmetic earlier and earlier.
If you doubt this is true, talk to any veteran kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade, or third-grade teacher. Fifteen years ago, kindergarten was a place or social and emotional development. Reading was reserved for first grade. First-graders were expected to learn their letters and slowly, over the year, master letter sounds, begin to recognize some words on sight, and read short sentences. Second grade was given over to developing math concepts and reading fluency. These days, in many schools principals urge parents to be sure that their incoming kindergartners already know the letters--uppercase and lowercase--and to make sure they have the corresponding letter sounds solidly under their Hello Kitty or Power Ranger belts. Many parents are warned that in order to stay at grade level, kindergartners should be able to read on their own by the end of the year. Today, first-graders are routinely pushed through a curriculum that fifteen years ago was considered standard for second or sometimes third grade.
Noting a "single-minded focus on standardized tests" in which there is "no time for blocks," Tyre cites findings by the Center on Education Policy (a Washington think tank) that nearly two thirds of elementary schools are spending more time on reading and math and less time on social studies, science, art, music, lunch, and gym.

She also cites children's book author Ralph Fletcher as saying that "there are so many curriculum mandates that writing has become so much more content driven and less about choice."

Her anecdotes include:

A mother whose son is "bored to death with the drill-it-till-you-kill-kit approach to math problems, which, in the mother's words, involve "the same problems, with the same numbers over and over again."

A teacher who bucks current trends because she is "determined to prevent filling out worksheets and quiet desk work from taking away from active play and hands-on learning."

Tyre's discussion ignores the reality that:

1. Reform Math has watered down math and science instruction as never before. Far from being two years ahead in math, as Tyre suggests, and far from being "pushed to reach the milestones of arithmetic earlier and earlier," as Tyre states, your average elementary student, by 5th or 6th grade, is actually up to two years behind in math.

2. Most No Child Left Behind tests set such a low bar, especially in math, that classrooms that focus on these tests set a lower academic bar than ever before.

3. While many schools have reduced or eliminated art and music, art is alive and well in all those "be colorful," "be creative" math, science, language arts, and social studies assignments, and all those large/interdisciplinary projects.

4. Blocks and other manipulatives are alive and well in today's Reform Math classes, extending further into elementary school than ever before.

5. Reform Math de-emphasizes worksheets and "quiet desk work" in favor of hands-on, cooperative group learning.

6. Reform Math eschews drill and kill as never before, such that fewer and fewer students are doing the same problems over and over again.

7. Assignments in general, and writing assignments in particular, are less and less content-driven, and more and more based on personal connections and reflections.

Finally, as accurate as Tyre's anecdotes surely are, they are one-sided. Where are the many boys who are bored with school because the math is too easy, or because the writing assignments are based more on personal feelings than on actual content, or because science is more about science appreciation than about solving hard science problems, or because math, science, and social studies assignments so often require him to produce "colorful and creative" illustrations, book covers, and posters?


kcab said...

You know, it's possible that both you and Tyre are correct. For one thing, it does seem like the usual response to kids not learning something well enough has been to spend more time, starting earlier. However, seems like this has also involved using the same methods that resulted in them not learning in the first place. So, even though academic content (and sitting still in seats) is pushed down to younger ages, they're still doing pretty much the same thing in first & second grade as before, at least as far as I can see. Seems like the effect is to prolong the agony that is elementary school.

Also, I saw a lot more drilling, and was urged to do a lot more drilling, when I had a child in a class that was using Everyday Math. It's not part of EM, I know, but it was a reality of my daughter's math education.

Beth said...

Katherine, I'd like to know what percentage of public schools use Reform Math like Everyday Math, and what percentage use the old-fashioned stuff like Houghton-Mifflin (true of our nominally high-performing district.)

If only a minority of schools use Reform Math, Peg Tyre could be giving a completely accurate account of most public schools.

Katharine Beals said...

Beth, that's a very fair question and unfortunately it's hard to get an exact answer, as this is one stat that the Dept of Ed doesn't keep track of. Everyday Math, based on their website, seems to have 10% of the U.S. market and others have guessed that the remaining Reform Math programs may have another 10% collectively. So that's only 1 in 5. Plus, as kcab points out, some schools that use EM still engage in drills even though EM doesn't encourage it. I also mention this in regard to the most challenged inner-city schools in my "Constructivist Bias" post--you may often have Everyday Math without the bells and whistles.

On the other hand, as Barry Garelick points out, the drive towards constructivism (in more affluent schools) means that the reverse is also true; just because a school is using a more traditional text book doesn't mean that it isn't using Constructivist methods.

So the picture is quite complicated: at some schools, you have watered-down math without the arts & crafts and personal reflections requirements; at other schools, the math may be less watered down but with the arts & crafts and personal reflections assignments.

And these features of Constructivism may also be affecting science and social studies at such schools--independently of what's going on in math and science.

Also, even with traditional math programs, the math has not been accelerated relative to the past, contrary to what Tyre claims--at least in the majority of schools out there.

The problem with Tyre's book is that she's extending what she says about early literacy to math, implying that kids are being pushed way ahead in math when in fact they aren't (perhaps there's some early certainly stuff in kindergarten, but this does not carry through into later grades; what people call "algebra" in 7th and 8th grade isn't real algebra).

The other problem is that she completely ignores how the unprecedented and growing arts & crafts and personal reflections demands are affecting boys, when there's reason to believe that these trends are highly problematic for boys in particular.

LexAequitas said...

With respect to the topic at hand, I've seen quite a bit where behaviorally I'd agree with Tyre -- where boys are judged by behavioral standards that come naturally to girls. I've had teachers complain to me in pt conferences about how many boys were in their class (I have three sons, so I have no idea why she would have thought that appropriate).

Then I've also seen a lousy focus on academics. My fourth-grade son is working on sixth-grade Singapore math material at home, and doing multi-digit addition (!?) in school.

The only "drill-and-kill" I've seen was done at home afterschooling, three years ago, and is a good part of the reason my oldest is working at the level he's at today (my first-grade son is lucky -- his "drill-and-kill" is now courtesy of a Nintendo DS program called masu x masu. He loves it, and has learned his times tables to 10.)

Incidentally, though, one of the reasons I wanted to comment is because while I like the blog and the ideas here, the premise bothers me a bit. It's great that you're noting that the "right-brain/left-brain" supposed dichotomy is being used here merely to denote a bundle of traits, but this does run into issues if the traits are not truly bundled, doesn't it? Using these "bundles" implies that, e.g., introversion and sequentiality are necessarily correlated, and that introversion and emotionality are not.

This is more than a pedantic concern: if parents identify their children in these bundles, they may start reinforcing the correlations within the bundles even when the child has genuine traits from the other bundle. Moreover, they may miss important distinctions that do exist.

I don't think you're trying to write a hard science (for psychology, anyway) blog, but have you considered the possible effects of your approach, and how you might try to account for situations where the traits do not line up quite so neatly?