Monday, March 24, 2008

Why We Need to Change the Way We Teach Math

Two years ago President Bush convened a National Mathematics Advisory Panel to make suggestions for raising U.S. math proficiency, which lags far behind that of the top countries in the world. As the New York Times summarized last week (Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math), the main thrust of the panel's final report is that math curriculum needs to be streamlined, especially in the lower grades, to focus more on basic skills that students lack when they get to middle school and beyond.

I tend to disagree with much of what the current administration has done about education, but this is one report I agree with wholeheartedly. My students are so far behind coming into 9th grade, we spend at least half of the year teaching well-worn topics:
  • order of operations (first taught in 6th grade)
  • adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing positive and negative integers (6th)
  • fractions (2nd)
  • recognizing and predicting patterns (Kindergarten)
  • collecting and converting data to bar, line and circle graphs (1st)
  • answering questions and drawing conclusions about bar, line, and circle graphs (1st)
  • connecting words to math symbols and language (1st)
  • measure dimensions and find perimeter, area, and volume (3rd)
  • multiplication tables (3rd)
That's just part of it. More than half of our Algebra I objectives cover the same material that was tested in 8th grade, and our Algebra II teachers spent the first semester reteaching Algebra I for the same reason. Teachers and students are stuck in this tail spin, and without serious reforms, we'll never reach the level of proficiency we should be seeking as a nation.

The lack of basic skills compounds our problems. We don't have time to properly cover Algebra I topics because we're reteaching, and those topics are infinitely more difficult because they're still stuck on mastering basic skills. If I could spend the entire year teaching only Algebra I, we would have more than enough time to reach mastery and properly prepare students for Algebra II (and, in turn, college-level algebra).

Our standardized tests are also designed to keep us wallowing in mediocrity. Students are tested on the same material year after year, adding a level of difficulty each time and burying the objective beneath a pointlessly verbose word problem with too many steps. The time spent on benchmarks, preparing for testing, and finally testing itself takes weeks away from instructional time. Throughout the Rio Grande Valley, structuring each year of math (not to mention other subjects) around standardized tests and its particular brand of questioning is closer to the norm than the exception.

I'm not saying the tests are too difficult, or that their shouldn't be tests at all--it's how the questions are asked, what is covered in a particular year, and the way these tests are administered. Changes are already starting to happen in Texas, where some of these problems will be addressed by eliminating the current tests and administering more focused end-of-course exams in high school. Since Texas was the model for No Child Left Behind, perhaps this change will affect other states in the future.

I only hope that if the report's suggestions become part of the next president' s education policy, they come with serious reforms of NCLB-era testing. You can't have one without the other. I have tried the best I can to prepare students for their May 1st test, get them up to grade level, and prepare them for Algebra II (and ultimately college level math) at the same time.

If we don't change the way we teach mathematics, there's no way we'll reach those goals.