Taking Math Testing out of the Stone Age


February 15, 2016 By Joseph P. Farrell

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...