While we're on the subject of illegal teaching, one of my favorite personal stories of a teacher closing the door and teaching is Matthew Clavel's How Not to Teach Math
in City Journal
Clavel was teaching in a Manhattan School that had phased in Everyday Math four years before he arrived; his fourth graders had used the curriculum since Kindergarten.
The curriculum’s failure was undeniable: not one of my students knew his or her times tables, and few had mastered even the most basic operations; knowledge of multiplication and division was abysmal. Perhaps you think I shouldn’t have rejected a course of learning without giving it a full year (my school had only recently hired me as a 23-year-old Teach for America corps member). But what would you do, if you discovered that none of your fourth graders could correctly tell you the answer to four times eight?
Instead of rote learning and memorization, students move haphazardly from one seemingly unconnected topic to another. In Fuzzy Math lingo, it’s called “spiraling.” On this view, teachers shouldn’t use a single method to get addition across to students; they should try lots of approaches—like adding the left-most digits first. That way, the Fuzzy Math approach says, you have a better chance of getting students to understand the concept of addition. In practice, however, trying to teach a host of different methods if students haven’t sufficiently mastered any specific one—as is all but inevitable, since they haven’t spent much time practicing any specific one—can be very confusing.
Teachers frustrated by this incoherent approach got little sympathy from school administrators. District officials told us that we should just keep going—even if not a single child in our rooms understood what we were talking about. We were going to spiral back to each topic later in the year, they reassured us.
According to a 2000 Brookings Institute study, fourth graders who used calculators every day were likely to do worse in math than other students. But it’s minority kids like those in my class who are turning to calculators the most. The Brookings study reports that half of all black school children used calculators every day, compared with 27 percent of white school kids.
Then there is the bizarre recommended homework. According to Everyday Mathematics, I should have assigned my students extra-hard material to struggle with at home. Here’s an example from the updated fourth-grade workbook: “Homer’s is selling roller blades at 25 percent off the regular price of $52.00. Martin’s is selling them for one-third off the regular price of $60. Which store is offering the better buy?”
Now put yourself in the place of kid who hasn’t learned how to multiply quickly, who isn’t sure about what a percentage is, and whose knowledge of fractions is meager.
I certainly wasn’t alone in hating it. Indeed, I never heard a good word for it from my fellow teachers. At a grade conference one day, one our most respected fourth-grade teachers, a veteran who worked hard and cared deeply about the achievement of her students, summed up the general frustration with the new program: “I can’t teach it.”
A third-grade teacher objected to the intimidating complexity of some of Everyday Mathematics’s word-heavy mandatory activities, mentioning by way of example one of her totally lost students, who could not yet read or write. I had a few students in my class who were in the same boat, so there was nothing unusual about her statement. Yet the district official, smiling, just responded, “I don’t believe you.”
- 29 May 2005
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