Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too Young or Badly Taught?

From a comment Chris wrote on his own blog:

This weekend I was at a party, and a bunch of parents were talking about their kids' experiences with math. The kids they were talking about were all fifth- or sixth-grade girls. Every one of those parents talked about how their kids had been in tears with frustration over their math homework. I've heard similar stories from other parents as well.

This seems crazy to me. What do we think is so all-important about fifth-graders knowing long division (or reducing fractions, etc.) that it's worth regularly making them so frustrated with the subject that they're reduced to tears? It doesn't seem crazy to wonder whether we're asking them to do stuff that they're just not ready for -- or at least that would be much easier a few years later.

Chris, I also had a fifth-grade girl in tears over her math homework. It's terrible. It sets the child up to hate school, hate math, and doubt her own abilities. It's one of the many experiences that has made me a campaigner against homework in elementary school.

But I can't agree with your second paragraph. You ask, "what do we think is so all-important about fifth graders knowing long division?"

You should know that Everyday Math, and other constructivist math curricula, don't teach long division. They teach "partial sums division", an extremely long-winded and error-prone substitute. Since they don't teach the standard multiplication algorithm either, the amount of work they propose to solve a simple division problem is mind-boggling. Here's a video showing their methods:

Why is a child struggling with math?  It could be that the child is simply too young for the concepts being taught.  Or it could be that the child is using a lousy math curriculum that doesn't really prepare her for each next step in learning math, and presents a collection of time-consuming and inefficient strategies instead of teaching standard algorithms.   

If your child is using Everyday Math, I assure you that the curriculum is itself a huge source of frustration.  Is she also too young for the concepts being taught?  Actually, I doubt it.  If you tried teaching her fractions and long division yourself, you'd probably find she was perfectly capable of learning them.

All of us who send our kids to traditional schools run into the issues you describe.  The problem is that it isn't really up to us to make decisions about what gets taught when.  Your fifth-grader will soon be going to middle school, and soon enough she'll take Algebra.  When she gets there, if she can't handle fractions, she will be in deep trouble.


  1. I'm sure you're partly right. I am certainly mystified by some of the choices the Everyday Math people made, such as the partial sums business, the lattices, etc. But I'm not convinced that the choice of curriculum explains the entire problem. My friends in New York City, for example, tell similar stories about their fifth-grader whose school uses Singapore Math.

    I do think some kids are perfectly capable of meeting grade-level expectations without much difficulty if they have a capable teacher and a decent curriculum. But with any school curriculum, you're talking about all kids, with an average teacher who is overburdened by a large class size, with who-knows-what crazy curriculum, working in an atmosphere where the ability to be patient with kids who need some time is undermined by NCLB's obsession with meeting grade-level benchmarks. I question whether anyone could avoid making elementary school math a negative experience for a lot of kids in this kind of institutional framework.

    As for whether they need to do all this because of what will be expected of them in middle school, well, of course I vote for changing the expectations. I've heard that, around here at least, seventh grade is used as the time to re-teach most of the stuff that they can't count on the kids having learned in elementary school. I don't know whether that's true, but it seems to me that the six years (!) of middle and high school are more than enough time for students to learn the math that we want them to know before they graduate.

    Of course, as you know from my previous comments and posts, if it were up to me, I'd give the kids a lot more choice in what and how they learned in school. But even within our compulsory-education world, I'd lower the grade-level expectations in elementary school. Fine, teach some math, but keep it enjoyable, don't have a lot of tests or grades, and for pete's sake don't make them cry.

  2. Ack! I can't write blog posts fast enough to discuss all the issues you bring up!

    Next up -- I don't think the kids are crying because of high expectations, exactly. I think they're crying because they're being told to do something they don't understand, at home, when they're exhausted, and they know that they'll be punished if they don't get it done. I'd cry too. But I think that's a whole blog post of its own --

  3. PsychMom doing her psych thing adds....

    If an adult spent any time crying at night, at home, over his/her work, what would other adults be saying to them?

    "Obviously there's something wrong. Maybe you should consider a different job."

    "There's got to be a solution to this...can you talk to your co-worker/boss/supervisor?"

    "Maybe you should get some help...maybe you're depressed"

    "I don't know why you keep doing something you obviously really hate"

    And what do we say to kids?

    It's so messed up.