Saturday, June 14, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range, I: Not Your Mother’s Algebra 1 and the Guy Who Really Knows

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn and which were published here is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range".  This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents the first episode:

Those familiar with my writing on math education know me from my previous incarnations as John Dewey and Huck Finn, whose adventures I recounted in a book called “Letters from John Dewey/Letters from Huck Finn”. I am in a second career which for lack of a better title is known as “trying to obtain a permanent math teaching position in a desirable area of California.” I retired a few years ago and obtained a math teaching credential. Although I have applied for various math teaching jobs, I have only managed to get two interviews, so I’ve had to make do by being a substitute teacher. This situation may be due to age, or perhaps my views on math education are becoming known, or both.

In the course of the 2013-14 school year, however, I took on two long-term substitute assignments. The first one was for six weeks at a high school which started at the beginning of the school year. The second was for an entire semester at a middle school, starting in January and ending in June.

Both assignments took place amidst the media hype that focused on the 50th anniversary of events occurring in 1963 and 64 including but not limited to the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles’ arrival in the US and performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not mentioned by the press but every bit as important is the fact that it was also the 50th anniversary of my taking Algebra 1. And while I am not an outright proponent of the philosophy that “If you want something done right, you have to live in the past”, when it comes to how to teach math there are worse philosophies to embrace.

As if to keep me from delving too far into my past, my teaching assignments occurred during a year of transition to the Common Core standards. In both assignments, I came to know the person from the District office, who I shall call Sally, whose role was to get the teachers—as part of the transition effort— to try various Common Core type activities with their students. I met her for the first time on the teacher workday held before the first day of school.

Sally started out the meeting by telling us that she had been meeting with the person in charge of putting together the California "Framework" for Common Core. “So he REALLY KNOWS what's going on,” she said. This stated, she then talked about this in-the-know person’s view of Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMPs).

For those who may not know what these are, the SMPs are eight practices that 1) supposedly embody the work habits and general mode of thought of mathematicians, 2) were defined largely by non-mathematicians, and 3) which most real mathematicians believe are nonsense. Yes, criticizing and analyzing the reasoning of others (one of the SMPs) is what mathematicians may do, but it is something learned through accumulation of expertise in the subject area. But distinctions between novices and experts have never bothered the non-experts who write this stuff and even some mathematicians are swayed by the “wouldn’t it be nice if students could do this” quality of such daydreams.

Sally was therefore quite excited to tell us about the person who REALLY KNOWS’ view of the role of the SMP’s. “Up to now everyone thought the Standards for Mathematical Practice were the instructional methodology for teaching the content,” she said and then quickly added that the guy who REALLY KNOWS says, no, that's wrong.

I was getting hopeful here.

“He says it’s the other way around: the content is there for students to learn the Standards for Mathematical Practice,” Sally announced triumphantly. While this view can be interpreted to mean that math procedures and content lead to understanding I don't think that's what the guy who really knows meant. In all likelihood he meant that the Common Core content standards require students to work in groups, discuss, conjecture, critique each other’s arguments and that teachers are to be (in Sally’s words) "the guides on the side".

She talked about how the District was phasing out the “accelerated math” in which students in 8th and even 7th grade could take Algebra 1. She then put up a slide from a Power Point presentation titled “Not Your Mother’s Algebra 1” referring to Common Core’s approach to algebra. The whole idea being that Common Core gets into “deeper learning”. Which means that students will now get a smattering of algebra in 8th grade, and the rest of it in 9th, thus taking two years to do what used to be done in one—with some topics left out. She did say they are working on pathways for those students who may “really truly” be gifted and for which algebra in 7th or 8th grade may be appropriate. She also alluded that they are working on a pathway for those who did not qualify. I would in fact find out what the various math pathways would be and how one qualified to take a normal class in algebra. But that would be when I started my second assignment.

This was likely not going to sit well with some parents, she said and that for "back to school night" expect some questions on Common Core. “There's been a lot of parent pushback,” she said. She put some talking points up on the screen for us and said to feel free to use them. One of them was "writing and deep thinking" which I decided would not appear on my board on back to school night or any other night.

That evening I decided to look at the website for information about the “guy who really knows”. I found nothing. But I did find some information about the Superintendent of my school district. In particular, he wrote a piece on his philosophy of teaching and even made it available for downloading. I saw this:

“I believe students in the 21st century are different. They are digital natives and live in a world where “any knowledge” can be found immediately on Google. Therefore, why regurgitate knowledge (like an “academic rationalist”) when it is far more reasonable to expect a student to apply this knowledge and to make new meaning from this knowledge. Relevance is critical among this generation of students in order to motivate them to move beyond what I see as low-level thinking.”

I pretended I never saw it and decided to just stay invisible and teach math.


Auntie Ann said...

I hate the relevance argument. Relevance is almost synonymous with making sure students stay focused on their own little worlds and on their own navels. The point of *education* is to broaden horizons and give students experiences outside their comfort zones. "Relevance" ends with balkanization of education into interest-group based teaching, and embraces the attitude that the only thing that matters is the now--the past is never relevant.

It also amazes me that people can't see the similarities between the way we train for athletics and the way we train in academics. Tennis players will stand on the court for an hour practicing their serve, bucket after bucket; basketball players on the free-throw line putting up shot after shot; but apply that same sort of practice to academics--especially math--and educators recoil in horror. Why do we accept drills in sports and talk about having to work on muscle memory, but find it horrific to drill in academics and work on one's actual memory? Why do people understand without questioning that athletes need to practice basic skills for years in order to get good, but don't apply the same practices to learning academic skills?

SteveH said...

I'm waiting for our middle school to go backwards in math because of CC. It's really is up to parents to fight back, but it would be an ugly battle. K-8 educators would have to admit that they are fundamentally wrong, and they are.

I've also talked about the comparison to sports, music, and dance. Their assumption is that there is something different about academics. They claim that one can pass math with only a rote understanding. That's not true, and in addition, educators haven't shown any success in the last two decades with their "Think System" approach. This is nothing new with the Common Core. "Traditional" math has been gone so long that they have to make up other scapegoats. BTW, our high school put on an extraordinary production of The Music Man this year built entirely on skills and a lot of practice and hard work.

The problem is that many educators are flat-out wrong in their beliefs. That is not an easy or comfortable thing to talk about or change. Ironically, they were directly taught those beliefs.

Wayne Bishop said...

We drill in athletics and music because we consider them important as opposed to mathematics or English composition. When these decision-makers start rolling the dice at gametime to see who is going to be quarterback, linebacker, and the like for the evening and they do the same for singing the leads in each performance of the school musicals, we will know that they are valued equally.

Wayne Bishop

Auntie Ann said...

Someone should compile a list of districts which are using the CC as an excuse to eliminate advanced math tracking. I know Santa Monica CA is.

SteveH said...

I just checked again and saw that our middle school still uses Glencoe's Algebra 1 text. They haven't moved down a level to their "Concepts and Applications" textbook, both, of course, the publisher claims are Common Core compatible. So, if schools use CC as an excuse to lower expectations, something else is going on. Ask Glencoe if their "Concepts and Applications" teaches more understanding than their Algebra 1 textbook and see what they say. Will they recommend their C&A over Algebra 1 for those going on in STEM? Do STEM student not need as much understanding?

My view is that educators don't want to face the fact that what they use in the lower grades (probably Everyday Math) is not doing the job - systemically. They want to assume that the reason so many kids struggle with real algebra in 8th grade is because they are not ready yet. It can't be due to a lack of all that understanding that EM supposedly provided. It can't be the teachers probably hated math in school. It can't be due to the full inclusion techniques they use. It must be the kids.

So now kids have to be "really truly" gifted, as Barry was told.

"... they are working on pathways for those students who may “really truly” be gifted"

However, most school have (since almost forever) used a sixth grade test and/or teacher evaluation for deciding which students are prepared for a faster track to algebra 1 in 8th grade. Why would a school dump algebra in 8th grade completely (apparently) and then talk only about finding some new path for truly gifted students?

Clearly, these educators lack any-century critical thinking STEM skills. In fact, they can't see that the Common Core does not support STEM development in K-8 by definition. Of course kids will have to be truly gifted to be ready for algebra in 8th grade with that kind of K-6 education. And when they see that some kids are prepared (via skill help at home or with tutoring), for algebra, they will just thing that it must be IQ.

Educators don't like separating kids and acceleration in K-6, but if it's done at home and they can't see it, then they can just call those kids "really truly" gifted. That's what they think of my son. Unfortunately, they never ask me about all of the skill work I did when he was in K-6.

We have a huge systemic educational flaw here and educators cannot see it because they are trapped in their little pedagogical and philosophical box.

SteveH said...

Barry, will you talk about what these other pathways are? I've heard of pathways where they expect students to double up math in high school. My reaction was that they were letting the teachers and pedagogy off the hook in K-6, but putting the entire onus on students in high school.

Barry Garelick said...

SteveH: If you don't get on the "truly gifted" pathway in grade 7 or 8 (by virtue of various "assessments"), then students may "double up" courses in high school, or take them in summer school.

Catherine said...


on all fronts

not your mother's algebra

writing and thinking

parent pushback

really truly gifted


Gerald Rising said...

Another thoughtful commentary, Barry.

If you set aside all the educational claptrap this woman offered, the one specific move that I consider serious is the break-up of the long-standing acceleration program by eliminating the algebra course in grade 8 for bright students.

I have long been a critic of the standard high school program for better students, I consider this tampering with that program at its outset typical of the way things are done in local school districts. I will bet that no senior high teacher was involved with this, but it will affect their program all the way to grade 12.

Yes, the usual lead up to AP calculus has never been great, the 7-12 program simply: grade 7: 7-8 combined, 8: algebra 1, 9: geometry, 10: algebra 2, 11: the usual senior course and then in 12: AP calc. The idea that teaching courses a year early addresses bright kids' needs is nonsense, but still the whole program should be rethought before the first year is eliminated.

What might well happen, given this early change, is that much content will be addressed superficially later on in order to free up grade 12 for AP.

Note: Despite what I have said here, I have serious reservations about AP calc for bright kids as 90% of them then simply repeat it in college for an easy A. But that calls for changing the AP course, not forcing it out or messing up the lead-in program.

And I cannot resist suggesting that you call attention in your commentary to Ray's and my LETTERS book. Gerry

Anonymous said...

GR, you should know your texts are still quietly being used by some teachers that really know math. As a parent, I thank you.

Barry Garelick said...

Thanks for the comment, Gerry. While not outright eliminating Algebra 1 for bright 8th graders, the school district is making it tougher for students to prove their "brightness". What this means is that some students who would have qualified for Algebra 1 under the previous criteria of 'brightness' will now be excluded under the new definition/criteria which, on its face, seems arbitrary.

And you are correct that I am remiss in not mentioning your great book:"Letters to a Young Math Teacher" (

And long-overdue thanks to Gerry who upon reading the blog entries for Huck Finn, passed them on to his publisher who agreed that they should be published in book form.

Auntie Ann said...

I wonder if the narrowing of the criteria for getting into 8th grade algebra will leave too few kids in the class, and allow the school to say that the low demand does not warrant the teacher and classroom time, allowing them to cancel it outright.

Hainish said...

"a piece on his teaching philosophy of teaching"

I've decided that this choice of words was intentional, apt, and hilarious. (Or, at least two out of three?)

Barry Garelick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crimson Wife said...

I haven't been able to get a straight answer from my district as to whether they would continue to offer a full algebra 1 course in middle school after the phasein to CCSS. Right now 75% of students take algebra 1 prior to 9th and 20% take geometry. I know they've been having issues with students failing the end-of-course exam and having to repeat algebra 1 in 9th. So I do agree that too many kids are currently pushed into 8th grade algebra. But the solution to that is to simply do a better job in placing students appropriately, NOT eliminating middle school algebra!

Not that many students who take algebra 1 in 7th actually wind up taking the post-AP math course in 12th. Most take AP Calc in 11th and then AP Stats in 12th. So while I do believe there should be a way for the most STEM-loving kids to take algebra 1 in 7th leading up to post-AP math in 12th, we're talking maybe 20 kids out of 500+ in the grade.

Barry Garelick said...

Most of the students in the Algebra I class in the middle school where I taught were 8th graders; there were very few 7th graders. The majority of the students handled the course well, so making the placement harder would eliminate the possibility for students who probably could handle it.

ChemProf said...

I definitely see my district phasing out 8th grade algebra. The middle school doesn't want to do it in part because they don't want any tracking or honors sections, and the high school would rather everyone came in at the same level. The high school teachers in my district unfortunately are more ES-like, and many of them resent the need to offer honors tracks, which they say are demanded by "wealthy parents."

I went to my district high school a million years ago. Back then, there were two sections of honors and everyone in honors took AP for the rare classes where it was offered. Now they offer 10 sections of honors but only two of AP when it is offered. So basically modern honors is what we called College Prep.

SteveH said...

The problem with CC is not about backing off on pushing too many kids into algebra 1 in 8th grade, but about backing off so much that algebra in 8th grade is eliminated except for the "truly gifted".

It was only a few years ago that we parents forced the middle school to eliminate the complete curriculum gap for those who managed to survive MathLand in K-6 and wanted to be properly prepared for geometry as a freshman. Now that algebra 1 in 8th grade exists - still a difficult goal because of Everyday Math, there is serious concern of backtracking to the lower CC standards ... for ALL students. There is a big threat that the lower schools will dump the problem on the high school, where the only solution is to force students to double up or take summer classes.

SteveH said...

Our lower schools drink from the K-8 Kool-Aid cup, but our high school tries to get everyone to take at least one AP class. It's quite a difference of opinion. Seventh and eighth grades are a battle ground. The teachers are required to be certified in the subjects they teach (state law), but there is still a dominant fuzzy view of education. The middle school now separates kids in math and language because students and parents expect to be able to get to second year honors classes in those subjects, but everything else is still left-over full inclusion from the lower grades.