Math text battles.
May 17, 2001 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Math text battles. Teachers unanimously recommended textbook series that helps students understand mathematical concepts. School Board ignored them and picked Saxon texts that promise to "raise scores on standardized tests." Are we teaching students to understand, or to score high and get politicians off the hook?
posted by darren (16 comments total)
Link isn't working... at least for me...

Got another one?
posted by da5id at 7:17 AM on May 17, 2001

I learned math with the Saxon system which is very highly test based (about once a week), but also very work intensive (30-70 problems a night if done the way they prescribe).

I think it's a bit unfair to group the Saxon system as a quick-to-pass-test system.

But on the larger level, if the tests accurately gauge where students need to be (which admittedly most current ones don't), what's the problem with using the tests to gauge? We use tests all the time to determine student achivement through Kindergarden all the way to the doctorate level. The real problem seems to be that the tests end up being overrun by political intrest that skew any chance of the test being written in a fair objective way that would accurately gauge student achivement (what they all supposedly want in the first place).

* the link isn't working for me either
posted by toastcowboy at 8:11 AM on May 17, 2001

I'm afraid I'm not inclined to believe that grade school and high school math teachers are experts in mathematical education. sad to say. There's too much evidence to the contrary. I'd be more inclined to accept the opinion of college professors over primary/secondary teachers, on math and on nearly every other subject.

Generally, college professors think the texts used in primary and secondary schools in the US are nearly worthless (especially in history), if not positively a hazard. Any idea what their position is specifically on math?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:36 AM on May 17, 2001

Try this link.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:38 AM on May 17, 2001

Some resources:

Assessment of Middle Grades Mathematics Textbooks from Project 2061 (Note: Saxon's text isn't included in this review).

2000 Principles and Standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Lessons from the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey from the US Department of Ed.

1996 Mathematics Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress
posted by iceberg273 at 8:50 AM on May 17, 2001

I don't understand why helping students "understand mathematical concepts" won't raise standardized test scores. What are the tests measuring, if not the students' understanding of mathematical concepts?
posted by kindall at 11:22 AM on May 17, 2001

The argument, as I understand it, is learning the concepts versus memorizing answers.
posted by darren at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2001

Kindall, the thing is that you're seeing code words for touchy-feelie new age stuff. In other words, it's not so much that you understand math as that you feel comfortable with it and personally fulfilled for having studied it. Tests are not relevant to this, since the purpose isn't to teach you to figure out answers as much as to make you feel good about yourself.

Little things like memorizing the addition and multiplication tables are a bad thing. It's boring and hostile and difficult and may convince you that you can't do mathematics, which would defeat the purpose of making you feel warm and fuzzy about math. If you want to do arithmetic, use a calculator.

(Yes, this is an exaggeration, but not as much as you might think. The reason that the test scores for kids in these programs suffer is that the kids aren't really learning math. They're really learning self-actualization or some such drivel.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2001

Steven - what "evidence to the contrary" are you referring to? Where I'm from, high school math teachers had to follow predefined curricula to the letter; there was little room for them to exercise their own philosophies of math education, so chalking up their students' failure to their inability to teach math . My own high school education (1992-1996, RIP) was mediocre at best, but I had a handful of highly talented math teachers who had successfully imparted knowledge and problem-solving abilities to their students back when they'd actually been given some flexibility.

Also, while math profs tend to know more about math than do high school math teachers, it's been my experience (as a recent math undergrad) that they do not know more about math eduath education. High school teachers need teaching degrees; college profs don't. Every other math prof I've had in university was disorganized, mumbled, didn't speak English, or gave abysmal notes. Students' performance and understanding was related not to their prof's teaching ability, but to the effort they themselves put into reading the textbook. Which isn't altogether terrible - for university students who have expressed enough of an interest/ability/desire to study math that they can operate in that unstructured a setting. For high school students, many of whom hate/can't do math, another approach is required.

That having been said, the high school math texts that =I= have seen of late are rather pitiful, and the (UW) profs I've talked to have problems with them largely because students tend to emerge from high school having no idea what a proper proof looks like. Most of the high school students I've tutored ask me for the formula for this or that, and are confused when I explain that those formulas can actually be derived from prior knowledge. To say nothing of how abysmally little geometry is taught...
posted by isomorphisms at 11:51 AM on May 17, 2001

That quasi-sentence above should finish, " chalking their students' failure up to their inability to teach math isn't entirely fair." Mea culpa.
posted by isomorphisms at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2001

Kindall, here's a previous MeFi thread about math pedagogy with some good links; it's possible that the "understanding mathematical concepts" part of the reject textbooks resembles constructivist math.
posted by snarkout at 12:06 PM on May 17, 2001

Isomorphism, you have to understand that any statement about a population is a statistical statement, and that there will always be exceptions. I am certainly not saying that there exist no primary or secondary math teachers who know anything fundamental about math.

However, it's well known that math and science are particularly hard subjects to recruit qualified teachers for, and in some cases certain school districts have actually toyed with the idea of paying more for teachers in those subjects simply to attract qualified candidates. (Invariably the local teacher's union stomps on this idea.)

The reason? Anyone really good at math can find a lot better job than teaching in a high school. (Usually in engineering, but that's a different story.)

Most primary and secondary teachers aren't specialized in a subject. What they study in college is teaching, not math or science of history or humanities. This is only slightly mediocre when you're talking about something like history (where the course material is usually wretched but the resulting teaching failure won't have important effects on the student's life), but to teach math you not only have to know teaching but also math. The vast majority don't, really, as typified by your own statement that the students don't come out of high school knowing how to produce a rigorous proof.

The reason for that is simple: you can't teach what you don't know, and a lot of the teachers themselves mostly can't do that either.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:25 PM on May 17, 2001

No student is left behind using the Saxon model, he said.... “For some of these students, you are going to have to place them where they can perform,” he said. “If that means putting them in a different class for part of the day, then that’s what it means.”

God forbid you actually group them according to ability. Much better to throw everyone in together where the teacher is so stretched she can't focus on any of them for more than half a minute before being distracted by the discipline problems sitting in strategic points in the room.

You'll have to overlook me today- I just spent the day working with a group of 4th and 5th graders who can't do an 8 word crossword puzzle by themselves. The assistant stood up front and did each one slowly and they still didn't do the work.

I live in NC where we have this cool little end of grade test for grades 3,4 and 5 and everyone's all eager to be a model for the nation. It's laughable... Unless your kid's caught in the middle of the mess. They emphasize this test so hard *all year* that my 1st grader is dreading 3rd grade. I don't remember freaking out over some standardized test that people a year or two older were taking- we didn't even hear about them.

sorry. really. you don't see my name here much but this one pushed a red button here somewhere.
posted by auntbunny at 3:21 PM on May 17, 2001

Steven - sure, most high/elementary school math teachers specialize in teaching rather than in math, and I definitely don't need to be convinced that 1) math is especially difficult/important to teach and that 2) there are some math teachers who don't know their subject. But it's also true that most university professors are ill-versed in pedagogy, and pedagogy is tremendously important in teaching math at the elementary and high school levels. Unfortunately, there just aren't many people out there with both mathematical and teaching ability, and it's the fact that that combination is lacking that's the problem. I've had a fair bit of experience in both, and I draw upon both my ability to do math and my experience working with gifted/learning disabled/bored/"average" students to teach. I happen to know graduate level functional analysis, Galois theory, and projective geometry, but I'll be the first to say that I don't need ANY of those to work with high/elementary schoolers, and my knowledge of those subjects shouldn't in any way make my views on math education prior to the university level more credible. Solid understanding of high school math, and a bit beyond - sure. Too few teachers have that. But after that's been attained, I'd say hone the teaching skills before the math ones.

And as for kids not knowing how to write proper proofs - I've seen curriculum outlines, and they were written by someone with the dubious talent of being able to write detailed enough, day-by-day lesson plans that take up an entire class and impart no critical thinking skills. Experienced, talented teachers who managed to turn out bright, prepared pupils a decade ago are at a loss to salvage the textbooks they're fed by the school board now. Then again, this isn't a high school teacher vs. university professor debate here - it's a teacher vs. government bureaucrat one, and I think that we can safely agree that whether or not high school teachers know more about high school math education than do university profs, politicians with neither math nor teaching background know less.
posted by isomorphisms at 4:00 PM on May 17, 2001

For what it`s worth, the good math teachers I had used the books to tell us what problems to do, in jr. high, high school and college. I think that regardless of the textbook, a good math teacher is a good math teacher.

This (and the following, actually) held true for 5th and 6ht grade, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus and two terms advanced calculus in college. I knew, at the end of my math career, all of the stuff they`d been teaching me and knew how to use it. And the books were uniformly terrible. This, however, was only a problem when you didn`t understand the teacher`s explanation, which was a rarity with the four teachers in my example.

Re: auntbunny`s comment: I know from my government and economics classes which were not segrefated by ability, and all of my other classes, which were, that that split makes a real difference, if nothing else in the depth and appropriateness of the education you get, if not in how skilled/knowledgeable you are in the subject.

[Though through what I think is a statistical anomaly, my experience indicates that a good math tecaher will also have red hair.]
posted by chiheisen at 9:32 PM on May 17, 2001

It seems teachers in New York are taking up the battle.
posted by darren at 5:37 AM on May 18, 2001

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