Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reform Math Conspirators?

Katharine Beals has an interesting blog post over at Out In Left Field.  I wrote a long comment which was immediately eaten by Blogger, so I thought I'd write a post on my own blog.

Unlike Katharine, I consider myself both liberal and progressive, and I think progressive ed theory does have useful ideas.  The implementation of progressive ed in traditional schools is usually horrendous, but I'm still open to the idea that progressive ed, done well, could be a beautiful thing.  I care a lot about what school feels like for my kids, and I want an education that will help them develop as entire human beings.  I want my kids to enjoy school and learning.

Although Katharine and I disagree in many ways, we agree on two points: homework should be eliminated in the early grades, and Reform Math is a disaster.

I don't think it's fair to include "lay people" among the conspirators who have promoted Reform Math.  The fact is that lay people have zero influence over the schools, especially the public schools. Just ask Sara Bennett how much of a difference her book, and years of advocacy, have made to the homework problem.  For that matter, ask the folks over at kitchen table math how much of a difference they've managed to make, after years of impassioned advocacy against constructivist math.


  1. Thanks for the link, FedUpMom. I'll respond to you here and there.

    "Unlike Katharine, I consider myself both liberal and progressive, and I think progressive ed theory does have useful ideas."
    One thing that persistently confounds this debate is a confusion between political progressivism and educational progressivism. I believe it absolutely essential to keep political ideology out of the education debate. Therefore, I attempt to leave no clues here as to what my political persuasions are. (My criticism of "liberals of the knee jerk variety" is not a general criticism of liberals).

    "I don't think it's fair to include "lay people" among the conspirators who have promoted Reform Math. The fact is that lay people have zero influence over the schools, especially the public schools. "

    True enough, but numbers matter--especially where school boards are elected. The enthusiasm of lay people is also one big reason why people like Dan Meyer (referenced on my post) are so popular, and will, I predict, wield ever more influe

  2. I'm with FedUpMom on this one. Lay people -- if you mean ordinary parents -- have virtually no influence on educational policy at any level. I'd be willing to bet that Dan Meyer's name recognition among parents generally would be less than one percent. School board elections are decided by tiny numbers of people, many of whom are not laypeople but school personnel -- and usually offer no real choice among pedagogies anyway.

    But how can one possibly keep political ideology out of the education debate? And why would you? My main objection to most of what I see in my kids' school is that, more than anything, it's teaching them authoritarian values -- teaching them to be passive little instruction-followers who won't ever ask a challenging question, rock the boat, or expect to have any say over the institution that they're confined to. If you can't reassure me that a return to more traditional math pedagogy wouldn't exacerbate that trend, I'll never be on board.

  3. Hmmm ... I'm starting to think that curriculum and authoritarianism are not linked in the ways that you might expect.

    A "progressive" curriculum like Everyday Math or Trailblazers can be implemented in an authoritarian way, and usually is, because that's what teachers are accustomed to.

    Likewise, a more traditional math curriculum wouldn't have to be carried out in an authoritarian way.

    Actually, I think the incredibly weak content of bad curricula leads to more authoritarianism. Because teachers don't know what real academic content looks like, they obsess over teaching "time management", "responsibility", and "organization", and it all becomes an exercise in compliance.

  4. Here's another way to think about it -- what we've got now is a lot of authoritarianism, plus weak content and a confusing, shallow curriculum.

    Could I talk you into replacing Everyday Math with Singapore Math if I assured you that the authoritarianism would be no worse than the level it is now?

    That is, the level of authoritarianism would be either about the same or somewhat less, and your kids would have a solid mastery of basic math by the end of 5th grade.

    What you've got right now is the worst of the worst: high authoritarianism, plus kids who are being set up for failure in math.

  5. Re: Dan Meyer, I watched some of the video and read the article that Katharine links to.

    Meyer strikes me as a guy who basically doesn't like math. I don't think math becomes magically more interesting because there's a video of a guy shooting a basket (notice the usual gender bias, btw.)

  6. Yes, I don't disagree with you at all, FedUpMom. All I'm saying is that you can't just ignore the issue out of some desire not to get into "political" issues. To ignore it is to say it doesn't matter, which *is* a political position.

    But I'm totally open to the idea that traditional approaches to math might be no worse, or even better, than "progressive" approaches in terms of whether they convey authoritarian values. Not convinced one way or the other, but entirely open to it.

    I also think "traditional" approaches (for lack of a better word) are potentially perfectly consistent with less coercive educational philosophies. Even the unschooled kid may decide he or she wants to be taught math. I could easily see someone preferring a traditional approach over a progressive approach in that circumstance.

  7. I agree with you that we have to focus on both curriculum and what the classroom feels like for the children. I've always been in favor of progressive education, but lately I've started to rethink it.

    I think the most difficult thing about any kind of progressive education is that it takes more knowledge of the subject and more skill and creativity than traditional methods. I teach literature to adults. I could lecture. It takes a lot of knowledge and skill to write a traditional lecture, especially to make it genuinely interesting. It takes even more to lead a lively discussion that everyone feels comfortable joining and leads to just as much real increase of understanding as the lecture would...if you were paying attention.

    We need teachers to know their subjects well, but it was naive to assume that they could all be as creative and attuned to each child's individual needs as you have to be to facilitate open education. Just look at the extreme variability of quality in Montessori schools.