Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Times Tries to do The Math.

I was going to spend time blogging about books today. I’ve been frantically finishing Stephanie Meyer’s trilogy of Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, and was going to cope with my withdrawal through writing. (Book withdrawal is one of my most favorite feelings—mostly because it means that I have fallen so far into the story that the transition back to the real world is disorienting.) However, I then stumbled across an article in the Times titled: Report Urges Changes in Teaching Match. (Look it up under Education for March 14.) This article concludes that the real issue is that our 15 year olds are struggling with Algebra, and as a result are not going to do as well academically.
Certainly many of us remember sweating through Algebra II and Trigonometry. I remember spending a few too many afternoons in Mr. David’s room, wishing that I just understood what he was talking about. And yet, I got over it. I learned me some math, and have since never used it. I’m thinking about this now because I am about to take College Algebra test myself to fulfill requirements for my degree. It’s been roughly seven years since I’ve used any algebra skills, but I did just look up the quadratic equation, and recall its use in parabolic functions. But, getting back to the article, I think once again, we’re missing the point. Of course our public school students can’t grasp algebra, they’re struggling to grasp fractions.
Again and again we’re trying to “fix” education by first addressing the symptom and NOT the problem. The problem, as cited in the article is “Half of the eighth graders tested could not solve a word problem that required dividing fractions.” Just this past week I watched my class take the 7th grade math test, and I’ll tell you that half of the students could not complete a circle graph, use a protractor, or manipulate fractions.
Despite this lack of basic skills that the article, and my classroom, is drawing attention to, we need to legitimately consider what is happening. Our students are floundering, and as much as they’re struggling with fractions, perhaps the second half of that problem is that they are unable to understand word problems because they struggle as readers. As a result organizations like NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) are receiving more and more data that pigeonholes our teachers into teaching skills that the students are genuinely unprepared for. No teacher can effectively teach the grade level standards when the students are below grade level. Instead they must spend significant amounts of time “differentiating” material to support and catch up students, all the while meeting absurd requirements for bulletin boards, portfolios, student work folders, investigations, exit projects, and so on. Our teachers have such little time to devote to their teaching that the students are suffering—Big Time. Perhaps, if my day was not torn between senseless meetings and circuitous paper work I could actually address the issues that arise in my classroom. However, if I neglect the bureaucratic duties than I am equally punished with more meetings, because it must mean that I am “not effectively on-board”. We math and reading teachers are stuck. We’re stuck because our content areas are all anyone can ever focus on. We’re stuck because we’re given six different curriculum models at a time, and we’re stuck because our administrators refuse to acknowledge that our students come to us not 6 months behind, but 2-3 YEARS behind. I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that we need to stop letting kids get away with not learning. When we don’t expect them to retain information, they won’t. It doesn’t matter how old they are, children must begin every day with the understanding that every choice they make within a school building affects their future. We don’t have any more time to let them forget that.

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