Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The conspirators that keep Reform Math in place

1. The education schools, of course. Nearly all of them have Progressive Education pedigrees, and the theory behind Reform Math, Constructivism, is the latest incarnation of educational progressivism.

2. Their student indoctrinees who become teachers, principals, curriculum consultants, curriculum developers, and grant readers for the deep-pocketed education division of the National Science Foundation.

3. The media, for whom classrooms of students in groups doing hands-on projects (and people who talk about what a great new idea this is), make for more attention-grabbing news than classrooms of students in rows doing pen and paper exercises.

3. Postmodernists and Critical Theorists, suspicious of the rigid truth and authority of traditional mathematics (and the idea that 2 + 2 necessarily equals 4), and seduced by Reform Math's open-ended problems, multiple strategies, meta-cognitive reflections, and resistance to single correct answers.

4. The many mathematicians who haven't looked closely at the curriculum but tend to like (and trust) what they hear about it. Here a whole separate paragraph is necessary:

More than others, mathematicians tend to remember traditional math as gratuitously tedious: perhaps for them the drills and algorithmic practice were especially tedious, and perhaps they weren't as dependent on others are on doing these things in order to obtain mastery, making drills seem pointless to boot. As teachers of college students, mathematicians are also constantly looking at the end of the pipeline, where what emerges are college freshman who increasingly lack conceptual understanding. Told by "education experts" that Reform Math emphasizes conceptual understanding over meaningless rote learning, they conclude that Reform Math is the remedy, rather than being part of the problem.

5. Those at the opposite end of the mathematical spectrum: mathphobes and their parents. People, that is, who don't value rigorous math and who themselves, and/or whose children, are not mathematically inclined and do "better" with Reform Math's version of mathematics.

6. Lay people who either know little (or care little) about mathematics, or don't have children in school, or don't examine their children's homework assignments and compare it to what they were doing in math at the same age--and who subscribe to current middle class cultural truisms.  Such people tend to love buzzwords like "hands-on", "conceptual understanding," "no one right answer," "multiple intelligences and learning styles," "child-centered," "taking ownership," and "making math relevant," as much as they flinch at "worksheets," "drill and kill," "mere calculation," "teacher-centered," "one right answer," and "dry abstraction."

7. Liberals of the knee-jerk variety who find anything traditional and authority-centered to be politically suspect; and/or who believe that traditional math instruction doesn't work for disadvantaged and/or nonwhite and/or non-Western children, and/or privileges privileged white children, thus widening the achievement gap .

On the other side? Nearly everyone who understands math deeply (at least through arithmetic, algebra, and geometry), cares about math, has taken a close look at the Reform Math curriculum, and has school-aged children. 

Unfortunately, however much more qualified members of this second group are to assess Reform Math, they're far outnumbered--and out-buzzed--by those populating the educationist / postmodernist / out-of-touch mathphilic / in-touch mathphobic / middle class populist / knee-jerk liberal fronts.

14 comments:

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, my comment got eaten by Blogger, so I discussed your post on my blog:

Reform Math Conspirators?

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks for the link, FedUpMom. I'll respond to you here and there.
"Unlike Katharine, I consider myself both liberal and progressive, and I think progressive ed theory does have useful ideas."
One thing that persistently confounds this debate is a confusion between political progressivism and educational progressivism. I believe it absolutely essential to keep political ideology out of the education debate. Therefore, I attempt to leave no clues here as to what my political persuasions are. (My criticism of "liberals of the knee jerk variety" is not a general criticism of liberals).

"I don't think it's fair to include "lay people" among the conspirators who have promoted Reform Math. The fact is that lay people have zero influence over the schools, especially the public schools. "

True enough, but numbers matter--especially where school boards are elected. The enthusiasm of lay people is also one big reason why people like Dan Meyer (referenced on this post) are so popular, and will, I predict, wield ever more influence on math education.

FedUpMom said...

Who the heck is Dan Meyer? Where is he referenced?

BTW, you've got a couple of typos:

"they weren't as dependent on others are" should be "they weren't as dependent as others are";

and

"privileges privileged white children" should be "privileged white children."

Katharine Beals said...

Dan Meyer is referenced here:

people who talk about what a great new idea this is)

Yes, "on" should be "as". I'm sure there are many more of these if you look closely!

But the second one isn't a typo:
privileges (verb) priviledged (adjective) white children

Katharine Beals said...

Yeah, I know, I misspelled "privileged"!

C T said...

Isn't "priviledged" correct in
British English? I read Jane Austen's novels in a Penguin British English compilation as a teenager, and I will forever think that those spellings are lovely. :)

FedUpMom said...

I see I misread the sentence the first time through. I didn't catch the verb-adjective thing.

How about "privileges already-privileged white children"? That would be clearer IMHO.

Katharine Beals said...

Getting back to the *content* of my post ( :) ), one might argue that, since few people have heard of Dan Meyer, how can his success in the edworld indicate anything about popular trends?

But one could say the same thing about Gail Carriger. What fraction of the popular has even heard her name? I hadn't, until very recently. And yet her success results in part from a popular trend in fiction that has been around for at least the last decade. (Vampires.)

Popular opinion does matter. If rigorous, sequential, workbook-centered math had the popular appeal of approaches like Dan Meyer's and Eugenia Etkina's, and if Dan Meyer's and Eugenia Etkina's approaches garnered the level of popular contempt that rigorous, sequential, workbook-centered math does, what we would see in the media, and even what we see (eventually) in our elected school boards, would look quite different.

LynnG said...

Blaming "liberals" of any variety injects a level of politicizing that doesn't help the debate or offer any clarity. As a person that grew up in an extremely conservative town and now live in a very conservative town (within a very liberal state)I can say with absolute certainty that there is no difference between the "liberal" or "conservative" parents in their approach to project-based learning in the schools. Both political persuasions are firmly in the camp of pro-reform math. Just as many conservative and traditional parents get all glossy eyed and woozy when they see their children creating posters of their favorite number in the 5th grade.

Katharine Beals said...

LynnG, I'm sure that's true. That's why I separated category 6 from category 7. Category 6 cuts across ideologies, and that seems to be the category you are describing.

But category 7, I believe, is much more strongly associated with one side of the political spectrum, and I think it's important to be aware of this; I think being aware of this does offer some clarity.

But as I think about this further, I'm thinking I should have subdivided category 7 into two categories, as follows:

7. People who find anything authority-centered to be politically suspect

[this category would include some liberals and some libertarians]

8.people who find anything traditional to be politically suspect, or who believe that traditional math instruction doesn't work for disadvantaged and/or nonwhite and/or non-Western children, and/or girls, and/or privileges privileged white children, thus widening the achievement gap.

[I've added "and/or girls"]
[I'm pretty sure this category includes very few conservatives]

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, I feel that you're shooting yourself in the foot here.

I would like to join you in your campaign against Reform Math curricula, but when you blame lay people (parents?) who are in fact powerless to effect change, and who never chose Reform Math in the first place, I get turned off. I get even more turned off when you inveigh against liberals.

My beef against Reform Math has nothing to do with its being liberal or progressive; I wouldn't use either of those adjectives to describe it, although I know it's marketed as "progressive". My beef is that Reform Math curricula do a terrible job of teaching math.

I've never heard anyone defend Reform Math with the claim that it's better for girls, or nonwhite minorities, or whomever. It's usually defended on the (false) grounds that it's progressive, or teaches deep concepts instead of standard algorithms.

Katharine Beals said...

"lay people... who are in fact powerless to effect change"

As individuals, yes, lay people are powerless. Nor do I "blame" them. A conspirator may be unwitting. Most are.

But as a societal group in a democracy, majority attitudes have a lot of power. Let me repeat what I commented earlier:

Popular opinion does matter. If rigorous, sequential, workbook-centered math had the popular appeal of approaches like Dan Meyer's and Eugenia Etkina's, and if Dan Meyer's and Eugenia Etkina's approaches garnered the level of popular contempt that rigorous, sequential, workbook-centered math does, what we would see in the media, and even what we see (eventually) in our elected school boards, would look quite different.

"I get even more turned off when you inveigh against liberals."

Reread my words carefully. That is a mischaracterization. Out of curiosity, does it bother you as much that I inveigh against a subgroup of mathematicians, or a subgroup of academics? Would it bother you as much if I inveighed against a subgroup of conservatives, as I certainly would were I writing a post about science and evolutionary theory?

"I've never heard anyone defend Reform Math with the claim that it's better for girls, or nonwhite minorities, or whomever."

I'm guessing you've never sat in on a math methods class at an ed school, or read this:

http://www.amazon.com/Womens-Ways-Knowing-Development-Anniversary/dp/0465090990

Barry Garelick said...

There are people, whether they be knee-jerk liberals, regular liberals, or conservative, who are as Katharine describes in item 7: I.e., they have an attitude that anything that is teacher-centered, traditional, is bad.

Barry Garelick said...

As far as how political orientation colors some beliefs, see the article I wrote here:

http://educationnext.org/anamazeingapproachtomath/