Are traditional methods of math instruction better for most students?

After I posted a brief notice about Elizabeth Green’s article on better math instruction, I heard several dissenting views. Also, there were 948 comments posted on the New York Times website. Here are some excerpts from some of the skeptical comments:

Frank commented, “Teaching in Japan now, I find the article disingenuous: Japanese largely learn math today the way people have for the last couple thousand years, memorization and repetition. The number one after school program is Kumon, which provides worksheet after worksheet of math problems.”

Mike Brady asked, “…isn’t the practice of constantly changing textbooks and methods a tremendous way to insure profits for the publishing corporations? Interesting how Math education in the USA worked well enough to educate USA scientists and inventors and technology experts prior to the Publishing Corporations’ New Math/Common Core.”

Barbarossa said, “The premise that the ‘classical way of teaching maths is ineffective” is simply wrong. This evidenced by all the countries that teach math the classical way (Korea, Iran, France, Russia, India, …) get good results and whose students populate all major STEM graduate programs in the US.

Barry Garelick said, “The education establishment may believe they are producing “little mathematicians,” but the increased enrollments in remedial math courses in universities tell a different and disturbing story.

johna  said, “My son, now 16, went to elementary school in the Seattle area, in a school district that employed the “discovery” method (similar to common core). Not only did the teachers do a poor job of explaining the math to my son, none of the teachers, the school district or the text books made any attempt to explain the approach to the parents. As such, not only were we ill-equipped to help my son with his homework, we were actively discouraged from helping him by using the traditional algorithms. As the article warns, the end result was to replace a familiar set of steps (which, though rote, actually work to get the right answer) with a set of even stranger rituals (that don’t work nearly as well). I’ll never forget the many nights my son spent drawing rows and rows of dots, rectangles, lines and other shapes, which, from his perspective, must appear to have been assigned for the sheer purpose of frustrating and confusing him, because they certainly didn’t help him understand math. That’ why all the parents in our neighborhood wound up sending their kids to Kumon.”

Kumon is an after school program. Another  traditional math instruction curriculum was developed by John Saxon. Nakonia (Niki) Hayes recently wrote that “Saxon literally popped onto the national math education scene unexpectedly and uninvited in 1981 after self-publishing his first algebra textbook.”

Saxon scoffed when reformists insisted that historically-proven mathematics, which had been developed over 2,000 years by diverse cultures from around the world, was effective only with “white males” in America—and “Asians.” Then, he would explode with anger over what he called disastrous teaching materials and methods being purchased without proof of their results.

World Languages in Fairfax

 World Languages Internationalization Working Group. This report presented to the Fairfax County School Board on Monday includes recommendations for the future of foreign language instruction in the elementary schools.

Fairfax school officials help Central American children

The flood of Central American children crossing the border has only recently become a top news story; however, Fairfax school officials have been coping with this situation for the past three years. Here is a report from Businessweek:

“These kids were homesick and heartbroken,” said Robin Hamby, a family specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in suburban Washington, which began feeling the surge almost as soon as it began three years ago.

Her Virginia district employs more teachers who work with non-English speakers than ever, and wrote a curriculum to reunite children and parents, many of whom haven’t seen one another in years.

Although recent budget reports for Fairfax County Public Schools have noted the increase in children who don’t speak English, there was no indication that some of these children were part of a new wave of unaccompanied minors. Better reporting of this situation might have led to earlier efforts to discourage even more Central American parents from sending their children to the United States.

The Declaration of Independence as a model of good writing

In Defense of Cursive: Reading the Declaration of Independence. This article published two years ago by the New Yorker explains that Timothy Matlack was the “engrosser” selected to copy the Declaration of Independence in 1776. “Matlack’s elegantly florid penmanship was, ironically, in a patrician style called English round hand,” Judith Thurman wrote. “It was also known as Copperplate; the precision of its lines lent itself to engraving.”

Last month when I mentioned that more time in school might allow more teaching of cursive writing, Kate Gladstone commented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than print-writing of equal or greater legibility. She said “Highest speed and legibility are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them, making the simplest joins, omitting the rest, using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.”

It would be interesting to find out more about how handwriting is currently taught in different school districts. According to PBS NewsHour, California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee have “recently moved to make cursive mandatory.”

The News Hour says Kitty Nicholson, the recently retired Deputy Director of the Conservation Labs at the National Archives admires the “penmanship of the scribes who wrote the many important national documents she has helped preserve, including the Declaration of Independence.”

“They were professional clerks known for writing beautifully, clearly in a way that anyone could read so they took the place of a formally printed document,” Nicholson said.

The words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence have inspired people around the world for 238 years, and we can also admire the beauty of these words put down onto a piece of vellum by Timothy Matlock. Examples of penmanship are also seen in the 56 signatures on the Declaration, including the famous large signature by John Hancock.

This image of the Declaration is taken from the engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823. Source: National Archives.

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Fairfax is ready for a uniform school day

No more half-day Mondays in Fairfax elementary schools. T. Rees Shapiro quotes Stuart Gibson’s characterization of the proposal which passed as “not ready for prime time.”

A catchy phrase, but how is it related to a uniform elementary school day? When Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975, the talented cast members performing in this late-night slot were ironically billed as the “Not Ready for Prime-Time Players.”

John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris,  Chevy Chase, and Laraine Newman went ahead and performed; and the show, which was originally called NBC’s Saturday Night, was an instant hit.

Perhaps if Stuart Gibson had been an NBC executive in 1975 he would have advocated sticking to the status quo and continuing to broadcast The Best of Carson reruns of The Tonight Show on Saturday nights at 11:30.

By the way, just how long should it take to get something “ready for prime time”? Fairfax has had Monday early dismissals for 43 years. Over the past 25 years, each  time a proposal has been put forth for full-day Mondays for all elementary schools, critics have rejected it as not good enough. Some critics would say that there was no acceptable alternative to the Monday early dismissal policy, others would hold out the hope that there might be an acceptable way of providing more time for students, but only after more study. It is easy to criticize a given proposal as “not ready for prime time,” not so easy to come up with an affordable alternative.

Speaking before the vote Thursday, Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) used a more relevant phrase in his discussion of the problems with the Monday early dismissal policy. He said, “we have been skating on thin ice” on meeting state standards for a long time.

I have not heard any of the supporters of the status quo argue in favor of a limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. I have also not heard any calls for a deliberate policy of not meeting the state standards for the length of the school day. Continuing to skate on thin ice would not have been a responsible course of action.

Update: This post was revised June 30.

Prince William County adds 10 minutes to the school day

Last night the Prince William County School Board unanimously voted to add 10 minutes to the school day starting next September. This change does not affect the length of the teacher contract day. The board also identified potential make-up days.

The agenda is shown below. There is a table showing regional comparisons for the length of the school days and years. I am puzzled by the figure given for Fairfax County Elementary schools: 355 minutes. That equals 5.92 hours. The table does note that there are weekly early dismissals.

I hope that Fairfax administrators who are working on the Fairfax proposals for schedule changes will give clear explanations of the current and proposed length of the school days.  Recommendation 2 in the current draft of the Fairfax proposal says: “Define the Elementary School Day at 410 Minutes.”

The Fairfax proposal says, “Currently, as defined, the length of the school day varies by level with 400 minutes shown for elementary schools, 410 minutes for middle schools and 405 for high schools.”

Here is the agenda for the Prince William County School Board’s consideration of 2014-15 School Calendar Adjustments: [Read more...]

Council of State Governments issues recommendations for reform of school discipline practices

Schools get road map for improving discipline practices. Donna St. George reports that the Council of State Governments Justice Center “urges that suspensions be used as a last resort, proposes targeting support to help students with behavioral issues and suggests specialized training for police officers on the nation’s campuses.”

There are 60 recommendations the 460-page report by the group. [Read more...]

Pennsylvania School district might eliminate most early dismissals

East Penn School District to consider eliminating early dismissals on Wednesdays at elementary schools. “For students, the advantages of eliminating half-day Wednesdays are more instructional time and consistency in their schedules, administrators say,” Lehigh Valley Live reports. “For teachers, a shared preparation time at the start of each school day could lead to increased collaboration across grade levels.”

Spend more money on schools, less on prisons

There are too many people in prison in the United States. The New York Times argues that we should end mass incarceration now.

“More than half of state prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and one of every nine, or about 159,000 people, are serving life sentences — nearly a third of them without the possibility of parole, the Times says.

All of this has come at an astounding economic cost, as tallied by a report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project — $80 billion a year in direct corrections expenses alone, and more than a quarter-trillion dollars when factoring in police, judicial and legal services.

Think of what could be accomplished by reallocating a good portion of this money to education.

Students need to learn to use computers effectively

In a letter to the Washington Post, Walter Carlson, the technology chairman for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said that “a case could be made that all students should learn basic computer science skills, including programming. But the case can also be made that it is much more important that all students learn how to use computers effectively.”