Taking Math Testing out of the Stone Age


Finally, there's some good news about American education, or is there? We'll get back to that in a moment. This story was shared with me by Mr. R.B., and I have to pass it along to you because it is genuinely good news:

The Math Revolution

Now, when one reads this article, there is the usual and expected bow to Common Core:

For a subject that has been around almost as long as civilization itself, there remains a surprising degree of contention among experts about how best to teach math. Fiery battles have been waged for decades over what gets taught, in what order, why, and how. Broadly speaking, there have been two opposing camps. On one side are those who favor conceptual knowledge—understanding how math relates to the world—over rote memorization and what they call “drill and kill.” (Some well-respected math-instruction gurus say that memorizing anything in math is counterproductive and stifles the love of learning.) On the other side are those who say memorization of multiplication tables and the like is necessary for efficient computation. They say teaching students the rules and procedures that govern math forms the bedrock of good instruction and sophisticated mathematical thinking. They bristle at the phrase drill and kill and prefer to call it simply “practice.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative walks a narrow path through that minefield, calling for teachers to place equal importance on “mathematical understanding” and “procedural skills.” It’s too early to know what effect the initiative will have. To be sure, though, most students today aren’t learning much math: Only 40 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders are considered at least “proficient.” On an internationally administered test in 2012, just 9 percent of 15-year-olds in the United States were rated “high scorers” in math, compared with 16 percent in Canada, 17 percent in Germany, 21 percent in Switzerland, 31 percent in South Korea, and 40 percent in Singapore.

But close attention to the article shows something very different. Rather than teaching to a test, the teacher in this instance was directly involved with her students, and allowed them to explore ways to solve a problem. Very little here - at least the way The Atlantic is reporting it - appears to be the stock in trade of what has passed for education in the past decades: teaching to the test.

You'll note, however, that there's also an implicit indictment of the whole American system here, and its most recent Common Core faddery, for note the use of "math camps" teaching accelerated mathematics to students who want to learn it, camps existing as a parallel and "extra-curricular" education institution, and you'll note, the camps are being taught by teachers - real human beings with a passion for the subject - and not a computerized core. Yours truly benefitted from such an approach beginning in junior high school, for I was placed in such an accelerated mathematics program, and though I've honestly forgotten most of what I learned, the experience itself was invaluable. It fueld a desire to learn other disciplines in depth, music theory, literature, history, and so on. More importantly, I learned the inter-connectedness of academic discplines. One could not learn poetry without art, music, and yes, mathematics. It allowed me to see deeper common structures. In short, what is making these programs successful is the lack of "one size fits all" approaches, and teachers willing to depart from "approved metholodologies" in order to explore successful ones, And notably, there's a borrowing here from a country which has been consistently strong at these math olympiads, Russia:

The roots of this failure can usually be traced back to second or third grade, says Inessa Rifkin, a co-founder of the Russian School of Mathematics, which this year enrolled 17,500 students in after-school and weekend math academies in 31 locations around the United States. In those grades, many education experts lament, instruction—even at the best schools—is provided by poorly trained teachers who are themselves uncomfortable with math. In 1997, Rifkin, who once worked as a mechanical engineer in the Soviet Union, saw this firsthand. Her children, who attended public school in affluent Newton, Massachusetts, were being taught to solve problems by memorizing rules and then following them like steps in a recipe, without understanding the bigger picture. “I’d look over their homework, and what I was seeing, it didn’t look like they were being taught math,” recalls Rifkin, who speaks emphatically, with a heavy Russian accent. “I’d say to my children, ‘Forget the rules! Just think!’ And they’d say, ‘That’s not how they teach it here. That’s not what the teacher wants us to do.’ ” That year, she and Irina Khavinson, a gifted math teacher she knew, founded the Russian School around her dining-room table.

As the article also notes, there is a similar effort under way to extend such opportunities to lower income classes, an effort that gives me some hope, because if we're to have a genuine explosion of creativity and of lifting people out of poverty, we have to give them the tools to do so.

Now, here's a thought: imagine applying such an approach to all displines: to engineering, to literature, to art and music and drama instruction.... why not advanced classes for those who really want to dig and learn in depth? And let's extend the idea: why not extend the same opportunities to teachers? Teachers, as I've pointed out before, spend an inordinate amount of time in silly and utterly useless workshops, mandated by their state or school district, learning the latest faddery, participating in workshops that are studies in passive aggression, listening to hours of useless edublither. Why not send them to workshops where they learn and explore the latest findings in their discipline, be it literature, art, music, engineering, or what have you? Where they are engaged in their subject matter, and not the latest methodological fad coming out of the colleges of edubabble and "continuing education" wastes of time.

How to do it? I suspect the math camps have pointed the way: ignore the professional educators, the people spending more time learning about educational faddery and little to no time learning about English, French, German, Italian language and literature, or art, or music, or history, or geography, or mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry. These camps and workshops are pointing out the failure of "education" and the whole rotten progressivist experiment that began with Wundt and Dewey, and they're showing us what can be done about it. Now let's see some art camps, some music camps, drama camps, history camps, physics camps. Let's cut the creative potential of bright people loose, instead of corraling it inside the thought constrictive boxes of central bankers, corporate foundations, and big "education" and "testing" companies that have produced the train wreck we see now.

And kuddos to those teachers that are bucking the system, and doing something for their students, and themselves.

See you on the flip side...


  1. I would also like to see some Philosophy and Theological camps as well.

    And imagine a political science camp that teaches what ~really~ goes on.

    Ah to dream….

  2. Joseph, the main thing I am amazed-about is that you seem to believe the education ‘situation’ is just a breakdown of the system rather than a carefully-thought-out (and implemented) plan. The education situation is a ‘success’, not a failure! (Just not for the common man…)

    “…were being taught to solve problems by memorizing rules and then following them like steps in a recipe, without understanding the bigger picture.”

    The above is the perfect plan for producing a ‘factory worker’. Or a peasant. Turn the ox left here; don’t worry about the guy in the fancy clothes coming to take half your crop…

    Flip through “1984” and “Brave New World.” You’ll see the real reasons for the failure in education. I am sure you must know this.

    (And kudos for the founders of the Russian School of Mathematics!)

    1. I find that Dr. Farrell’s sentence above regarding “the whole rotten progressivist experiment that began with Wundt and Dewey” contradicts the notion you expressed in the opening sentence of your response.

      I am a man who is, by choice, a ‘factory worker’. I am also a man who holds the view that government schooling is the ultimate instrument of tyranny.

      The ATLANTIC article was long but I read the whole of it and found it worth my attention. I then re-read Dr. Farrell’s post and, agreeing with the sense and sentiment of his concluding paragraphs, rated the post 5 stars.

      You, too, realized that there’s something besides the malevolent darkness within the “carefully-thought-out (and implemented) plan”; “kudos for the founders of the Russian School of Mathematics”, one of a thousand points of light that are on the way out there.

      1. Vader_Etro, I respectfully choose to disagree with your conclusion. I have been reading Joseph’s ‘American education’ articles for a long time, and find that he consistently backs the innocent ‘progressivist experiment’ angle rather than the calculated ‘do it to us’ angle. I would be glad to have Joseph straighten me out on this.

        I did not intend to ‘demean’ you as a ‘factory worker’, if you took it that way. It is a necessary ‘profession’, the same as teachers and doctors. What I was intending to point out was the psychological-indoctrination angle in the Common Core methodology. Quoting Inessa Rifkin again:

        “…were being taught to solve problems by memorizing rules and then following them like steps in a recipe, without understanding the bigger picture.”

        This is a recipe for getting the masses to dumb-down to what’s just in front of them. Kind of like the cattle who have been trained to look just-ahead, even when being herded into the cattle-slaughtering chute…

        Do I believe that there are those (like the founders of the Russian School of Mathematics) who are trying to buck the system? Most certainly, and kudos to all of them. The difference is that most ‘innocent’ folk believe the system is accidentally-broken (and move to ‘compensate’ for the broken system), while I believe it is a top-down, carefully-planned, carefully-executed ‘psy-op’ in order to produce perfect Citizens for the NWO.

        We will see who is closer to the mark, as the youngsters of today grow into adults…

        1. Hello, Goshawks. Thank you for your interesting reply.

          No personal offense taken, be assured. I merely used the occasion of the coincidence of my being a man who is a ‘factory worker’ to buffer an anti-authoritarian thought somewhat.

          Take care.

  3. Ralph Emerson in 1837 urged his audience to outlive the constraints that colonial experience imposed on them and to create the culture that would arise from the full and honest use of their own intellect, minds, and senses. Every generation is in effect colonized by assumptions and by things their culture reveres. Yet, is there some innate ability to imagine a possibility of shaping inevitable changes? Some sense of a temporal frontier awaiting discovery?
    Today public? universities are like beached vessels of unknown origin and intention, tempestuously decked-out in tantalizing relics of treasure, ripe for neoliberal plunderous privatizations. Education would soon be synonymous with vocation training and/or business for profit.
    Thus, poetry, mathematical/musical eloquences, beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance could be opened or enclosed.
    Open source is not controllable, nor can it be monopolized. So, the elites have chosen enclosure as their sacred modus-operandi.

    1. For example, some 300 yrs ago with the rise of the modern state, feudal sovereigns had based their power on coercive force, spectacular torture, and the threat of death. But the beginning of the 18th century, an increasingly rationalized government apparatus emphasized its powers to organize and sustain social existence – to foster life or disallow it.
      Herein a term referred to as biopower comes into play. There are basically two types.
      Micro-biopower, involves an anatomo-politics of optimizing, extorting, and disciplining bodies – ex., by drill in barracks, labor in factories, by rote in schools, or constraints in prisons.
      Macro-biopower, is situated and exercised at the level of life itself; the species, the race and the large-scale of populations. It focuses on propagation, births, and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the variables therein: to administer, optimize, and multiply it; shaping it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulation.
      This era began about 300 yrs ago, at precisely that of capital’s founding/funding moment of primitive accumulation.
      Now, in the 21st century, with the developments of life sciences- biotechnologies, pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnolgies – profitably reconstructing the basic corporeal and psychic aspects of human existence, facilitated by the corporate state through university research and intellectual property laws, is just another evolution a continuing enclosures/even in the virtual worlds of cyber-space.

  4. Those damn Russians. What are they up to? just can’t seem to read the news without tripping over some further reason to admire Russia.

  5. One of the problems is this obsession of the ability to write, spell and do math with thinking. It’s probability more important if the person can comprehend what they read and think above all else. I am a bad speller and poor at math and can be slow and ask questions if I was being interviewed for a job you would think I am dumb. You would need a lot of patience interviewing me to know if I was worth hiring there is more a person worth than the ability to write and do math.

  6. I for one concur with the “it’s not one size fits all” view in education. Just like anything in nature, in order for systems to learn, they must do so in a free environment with a structure that is not limiting yet capable of determining unviabilities. As with any method, the results will be self-evident.

  7. I benefitted from such a teacher in chemistry during my high school days growing up. As a result, I was able to take the first three chemistry courses by exam only in college. He was very passionate about his work and it showed itself in his students education. He was a rare and gifted teacher and had a way of inspiring his students to learn the subject.
    Even thought I did not pursue chemistry as my major, I did minor in it because of this individual and found it useful later in life. He was the one teacher I admired most throughout my life. No one else even came close to this man.

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