Why Does Public School Math Fail?

Why Does Public School Math Fail?

That question is asked by Aleksey Nudelman in his article Why Public School Math Fails published on Dec 10 2010 in Sharepoint Technology Resource.

Nudleman’s 2nd grade son is enrolled in a public school in California that uses EverDayMath (EDM) as its instructional resource. EDM is a close cousin of TERC Investigations as it follows the same instructional approach. Nudelman notes with some dismay that his son’s class keeps revisiting the same topics over and over again without achieving mastery, a technique called spiraling, and comments that intent of these spiraled lessons appears to be to “have fun” as opposed to actually learn content.

The article is quite interesting in that this father’s experience echos our experience in Prince William County.

Why Public School Math Fails

By Alexi Nudelman

December 10, 2010 —  A lot has been said about the problems with public schools, and I am not going to list all of them here. Instead, I would like to share my personal experience as an illustration to summarize the reasons for the failure of public schools, and to propose a solution.

My son is in second grade in a California school district described by its administrators as one of the best in the state, but his math curriculum continues to puzzle me. A random set of math topics is presented without emphasis on concept development. For the third year in a row, my son is being taught all aspects of coin counting that can conceivably be considered “fun.” I believe that the purpose of studying math is the development of logical thinking, and that coin-counting is better done by machines.

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Math in PWC Middle Schools

Our fight to bring rigor back to the PWC Mathematics program has focused on TERC’s Math Investigations in Elementary Schools. Unfortunately, the battleground has expanded.

We have it on good authority that PWCS will likely move to recommend Connected Mathematics (CMP) as the primary text in Middle Schools during the next textbook adoption process, which won’t begin for another year. CMP is MI’s MS equivalent, and the evidence that it provides little academic value to students is vast and growing.

We suspect, but have not been able to confirm, that CMP will make an appearance as a primary text in selected MS math classes this Fall. The district is pushing CMP on teachers, has reportedly obtained and distributed “free” copies of CMP’s instructors guides for every PWC MS math teacher, and openly lists CMP as the leading or secondary instructional resource in the Curriculum Framework for many standards.

What can we do?

(1) Ask the Principal directly if CMP will be used in your children’s math classrooms and to what capacity, and let us know what you hear back. As a parent you have a right to know what materials will be used to teach your child and to oppose the use of those materials if you believe they aren’t adequate. None of us would hesitate to make our feelings known if the district began teaching our kids how to put condoms on cucumbers, why should we be silent if the district is considering a math program we think is unacceptable?

(2) Begin working on your school board member. We’ve got a long time before the next math textbook adoption process begins (about a year), but we need to be prepared and we need to educate them.

(3) Consider running for school board from your district.

It takes 5 votes to approve a recommendation by the district – which means we need 4 to ensure that CMP doesn’t get approved. Whether the district is able to get 5 votes or note depends largely on when the vote is taken. If the vote is with the current board the we suspect Johns, Trenum, and Bell will be opposed to CMP with Lattin, Richardson, and Ramirez in favor. That leaves Otaigbe and Covington on the fence. If the vote is taken after a new board is seated, well then what textbooks and instructional materials each candidate supports will play a major role in whether they get elected. The more candidates we have who oppose fuzzy math, the more likely we are to get rid of it once and for all in PWC.

Middle School Program has No Discernible Effect?

So says the US Department of Education inthis report.

The program in question is the Connected Math Project (CMP) which is PWCS’ recommended instructional resource for many Middle School Math standards. Like TERC Investigations, CMP was not recommended for use in middle school classrooms in Virginia, and, like TERC Investigations, PWCS has decided to instruct teachers to use CMP whenever and wherever possible in the classroom. Rather than go through the difficulty of a full adoption of CMP, the district has simply been pushing teachers to use the materials even though they haven’t been approved.

Is Discovery Learning a Bust?

Is Discovery Learning a Bust, and

Has PWC Blown it By Embracing Discovery Learning?

Several years ago Prince William County Schools (PWCS) adopted a mathematics program called Investigations in Number, Data, and Space as it’s elementary math program.  PWCS is currently pushing Connected Mathematics into the Middle Schools.  Both of these programs are based on an instructional philosophy which concludes that students’ learn best when they discover knowledge on their own – a philosophy which is commonly referred to as discovery, or constructivist, learning.

The current trend in extending the tenets of discovery learning to mathematics can be traced back, to an extent,  works published in the 60’s.   Researchers noted that children learn things easily outside of school when they discover it themselves, while learning in a school environment takes a lot of effort and work.   They theorized that if schools duplicated the “outside of school” environment, students would learn more in less time with better retention and greater depth of understanding.

Whole Language was one of the offshoots of this approach to learning.  After years of suffering the reading wars, Congress commissioned studies to determine how children learn to read.  The results of those studies brought about the more balanced reading instruction we see today where phonics is one of the pillars on which a sound reading program rests.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the Math Wars, with PWC on the front lines.  Several Years ago the National Institutes of Child Health convened  studies to ascertain how children learn math and what contributes to math learning disabilities.  One such study is currently in it’s 6th year and has reported some of it’s conclusions. Dr Dave Geary recently published an article, based on those studies, (see here) in which he concluded that some things, like talking and walking, are inherent biological functions which humans are genetically designed to develop, while other functions, like reading and math, aren’t inherent and are needed only because society demands them.

Geary’s research indicates that these non-inherent functions (which he refers to as biologically secondary knowledge) aren’t learned the same way that inherent functions are learned; that discovery and self learning, the primary means by which children learn to talk and walk aren’t the most effective means of teaching children to read or write or understand and perform mathematical calculations.

Geary’s study concludes that math and science instructional programs need to include direct instruction and practice if we want our children to learn math and science.

Yet in the fall PWCS will be officially extending it’s discovery based math program to 5th grade and officials in PWCS are working diligently to unofficially implement it’s discovery based math program, Connected Math, in the middle schools.  You have to wonder why the county would continue these programs, when the evidence suggests that these programs, while engaging to our children, don’t actually teach them math.


With thanks to Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD and Dan Dempsey of The Math Underground for bringing this research to my attention.

Omen’s of impending doom

Has PWC set it’s schools on a course for failure?

To answer that question one need only look to the Elementary mathematics program – Investigations.  You see, the philosophy Investigations follows – reform math – has failed miserably in state after state.  By selecting Investigations for elementary students and pushing Connected Math in the Middle Schools, PWC is setting our children up for failure just like the children in Washington and California were set up by their school divisions.

This Article, from the Spokesman Review, discusses how reform math failed students in Washington and how parents and the State Legislature are working to take control back from the schools.

Perhaps it’s time for a state-wide effort to toughen our standards of learning and get rid of these fuzzy curricula once and for all.

Connected Math’s bogus studies

As with Investigations, it appears that the numerous studies demonstrating middle school student achievement when taught under the CMP approach are bogus.

This study, completed by the US Department of Education, found that of the 22 studies conducted on CMP, 19 had so many flaws that they didn’t meet their standards for reliability. The other 3 met the standards but with reservations.

Of the 3 remaining, semi-valid studies, the results were inconclusive. Students taught under CMP underperformed their peers taught under a more traditional program when assessed by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), exceeded their peers when assessed by the Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), and equaled their peers when assessed by the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

What is Traditional Math?

Because there has been so much discussion about a traditional math track in PWC schools, we thought it might be useful to take a step back and discuss just what traditional math is – especially in lieu of the misconceptions and misrepresentations being batted about.

Let’s start with some of the misconceptions about traditional math programs that we’ve been hearing.

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