WEDNESDAY, MAY 5, 2021
Let's take a look at the experts: Should students all take the same math class?
Putting it a different way, should every sixth grader be taught the exact same "sixth grade math," and so on, up through the grades?
That strikes us as a crazy idea, but it seems to be catching on with the experts found in Our Town. Yesterday, Kevin Drum reported on a drift of this general type in California's public schools:
DRUM (5/4/21): [California's latest draft framework for K-12 math] takes on the issue of tracking, which has been the source of math pedagogy wars since before I was born. The new framework comes down firmly on the anti-tracking side up through middle school, based on the idea that recent neurological research shows that (a) anyone can learn math up to high levels,¹ and (b) advanced kids who take the standard Common Core classes do better than those who are tracked into honors classes...
In the footnote to that passage, Drum expresses his doubts about the (vague) claim "that anyone can learn math up to high levels," based on recent research.
Drum found California's public school establishment drifting toward "one size fits all." On Monday, in the Washington Post, long-time education writer Jay Mathews described the same tendency in the state of Virginia's establishment. Here's how his essay began:
MATHEWS (5/3/21): Pamela Fox is a mother of four and former lawyer who cares about the schools in Fairfax County, Va. She was appalled by the website of the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), described by the Virginia Department of Education as its partner “to consider how to modernize and update math instruction” in the state.
Under the VMPI plan, Fox said, “every student would be required to take the same math class through 10th grade of high school. There would be no classes for struggling students needing remedial help or for advanced students seeking accelerated math.”
We share the old school system tie with Mathews. We went to rival high schools at the same time back in the wonder years.
His temperament is different from ours. That's one of the reasons why we admire his work.
When Mathews tried to follow up by speaking with the appropriate officials, it sounds like he may have encountered a bit of doublespeak, with some okey-doke thrown in. That isn't entirely unusual when dealing with public school officials.
Should everyone take the same math class? We were struck by this observation, based on Mathews' voluminous experience:
MATHEWS: [I]t is difficult to find untracked math programs that work well—except at some charter schools in low-income neighborhoods that accelerate all math students. The Virginia plan does not appear to endorse that approach. Similar anti-tracking policies for math have produced an uproar in San Francisco Peninsula public school districts.
(Full disclosure: we attended those rival high schools right there on that very peninsula!)
For our money, the oddness in that passage is this—the charter schools to which Mathews refers decided to "accelerate all math students." Even there, school officials decided that everyone should take the same math class. They just thought that one math class should be harder!
Should everyone take the same math class? The idea strikes us as strange.
In part, we base that on personal experience. In part, we base it on our acquaintance with basic data.
Are some kids "better at math" than others? We'll guess that the answer is yes! We'll even guess that some kids are a whole lot better.
At any rate, here are some Grade 4 scores from the last administration of "America's report card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep):
Grade 4 math, 2019 Naep, public schools nationwide
90th percentile: 279.46
10th percentile: 198.19
On the 2019 Naep, ten percent of the nation's fourth-graders scored 279 or above. Also, ten percent of the nation's fourth-graders scored 198 or below.
That's twenty percent of the nation's fourth graders. Moving forward, should they all be taking the same math class? Consider a rough rule of thumb:
As part of a very rough rule of thumb, a ten-point gap on the Naep scale is often said to represent roughly one academic year.
Such rules of thumb tend to start breaking down when applied to such matters as these. But do we really think that all those kids should be taking the same math class? Beyond that, does common sense really suggest any such thing?
The nation's experts seem to be drifting toward "one size fits all" in the question of public school math. This strikes us as a strange idea, but then, let's consider those experts:
We began writing about cheating on standardized tests back in the 1970s (in the Baltimore Sun). For the record, we weren't talking about "teaching to the test." We were talking about flat-out cheating, of the most ridiculous kind.
We had stumbled upon such behavior by pure happenstance. Still, if you simply examined certain test data, it was sometimes blatantly obvious that some data made zero sense.
(For various reasons, the Naep is not susceptible to outright cheating. Or to specific "test prep!")
Decades went by, and our public school experts remained blissfully unaware of this problem. For a few years along the way, we worked with Dr. John Cannell as he tried to call attention to this problem through his "Lake Wobegon" reports. ("Where the children are all above average.")
Finally, a few newspapers blew the whistle on major cheating scandals in such large school systems as those in Atlanta and D.C.
Sadly, no! It wasn't the New York Times or the Washington Post which finally called attention to this ridiculous ongoing problem. It was such papers as the Atlanta Constitution and USA Today—with Mathews' wife, Linda Mathews, in charge of the project at the latter, widely-mocked newspaper.
In our experience, Our Town's top experts quite frequently aren't. We've never been able to stress that unfortunate fact quite enough.
We're inclined to be suspicious of the wisdom of experts. For better or worse, such attitudes are almost wholly unknown in the well-ordered streets of Our Town.
On the brighter side: You'll never have to hear about public school kids, or the schools they attend, if you watch "cable news."
You'll hear about Matt Gaetz, and Rudy. To the very end of your days, you'll hear about Trump and Barr.