Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Where's the Math?

A very interesting uprising of parents, educators and community members is happening in Washington state. According to this recent article, "A group of students, teachers and parents rallied at the Capitol Monday to draw attention to what they say is the state's failing math education system."

Where's the Math?, a non-partisan advocacy group in Washington, has committed to taking a stand and demanding change. (Their site is definitely worth checking out) Residents in Washington are so outraged that legislators are supporting bills that would create an over-site committee to review the state's math standards.

What caused this uprising?? -- "Nearly half of the state's juniors failed the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning last year." While this is significant, unfortunately, it's not uncommon. Math scores on state, national and international tests have become quite a concern in recent years. Not only are scores falling, things become even more complicated knowing that finding qualified math teachers is becoming increasingly difficult.

In local news, the Baltimore Sun published an article in January mentioning the discussions surrounding the idea of shifting the scope and sequence of mathematics curriculum to allow students to explore fewer topics more deeply each year, hoping that they will gain a solid foundation in the necessary skills before advancing to the next grade level. This would be dramatically different from the curriculum currently in place in this country that teaches (and reteaches) concepts every year.

Personally, I like this idea a lot. When each year has it's own focus that builds on the knowledge gained previously (and has supports in place to help remediate as necesary), math is new and interesting and students have time to master skills. When I was teaching 6th grade math, I would have given anything if the incoming 5th graders would arrive with certain skills solid (ie basic number operations or fractions), so that I could advance their skills and teach them something new. Instead, students arrive with a wide range of skills, with the majority struggling with basic math concepts (multiplication and division, adding fractions, etc). They feel that they've seen almost everything before --- and they have (that's where it was helpful to have taught 5th grade math for a few years prior to 6th!). While there are some brand new skills in 6th grade and some skills that we would take to the next level (ie dividing by fractions for the first time), the majority of the year is a comprehensive review of basic math concepts. Students begin to lose interest in math when they feel like it's a repeat of that they learned last year. Not only do they lose interest, they never truly have time to master all of the skills we are requiring they know.

It's time to re-evaluate how we teach math in this country. More accurately, it's time to re-evaluate what math we teach and when we teach it. Will it require legislative intervention to require an inspection of our courses, standards and teaching practices??

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