May 22, 2008

Diagnosing RI's Problem with the Third "R"

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Jennifer D. Jordan of the Projo, a statewide mathematics "summit" held yesterday at Rhode Island College identified the following areas as contributing to the state's 22%-proficiency rate in high-school math achievement…

  • Some classroom teachers lack deep content knowledge in math, which makes it impossible for them to help their students reach the higher standards.
  • Many schools continue to “track” students, steering some students into easier math classes and away from higher-level algebra, geometry and calculus courses demanded by colleges and needed by today’s work force.
  • Students are too dependent on calculators and lack the ability to perform high-level work on their own.
  • Teachers are struggling to “differentiate instruction,” preventing them from adequately helping non-traditional learners, special-education students and others who find math challenging.
Seeing the "tracking" item on this list worries me. One well-known problem with standards established by remote bureaucracies -- in education and elsewhere -- is that, if not carefully thought-out, they can incentivize taking resources away from people and practices that are working best, i.e. already well-exceeding the standard. California's superintendent of public instruction explained this phenomenon to Time Magazine last year…
The do-or-die [adequate yearly progress] system creates perverse incentives. It rewards schools that focus on kids on the edge of achieving grade-level proficiency....There's no incentive for schools to do much of anything for the kids who are on grade level or above, which is one reason the law is unpopular in wealthier, high-achieving communities. And sadly, says [California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell], "NCLB provides no incentive to work on the kids far below the bar."
Identifying tracking as a problem, in effect saying that it's OK to slow down the progress of more-proficient mathematics students, as long as a shift in emphasis helps speed up the progress of less-proficient ones, is a classic example of this.

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Iz yor kidz lerning? If not here's an example why they aren't.

My daughter is a sophomore in an art school program. She had enough AP credits to skip a year, except for two courses. The first was an English course designed to assure that all students had a minimal understanding of the use of the language - all the stuff that should have been taught over the prior 12 years. Her cousins and friends report this is by no means unique across a range of schools.

But far worse was the math course she had to take. Most of her class were training as elementary teachers. Her assessment is that they were without exception innumerate. At the end of the course, they remained innumerate. Every week, a class was devoted to breathless recitations on "How I Used Math In My Daily Life This Week". The final exam was a poster presentation. Some grades were based on group assignments and in those my daughter found that not only were they innumerate but they were also stubborn about their wrong answers - otherwise she'd had had a 100+ grade for no work and no learning. No way out of the course and no way for her to upgrade to another, useful course.

Posted by: chuckR at May 22, 2008 6:03 PM
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