by Shayna Steinfeld
Please read this keeping in mind that the United States ranks between 15 and 20 of the top 20 industrialized countries in education around the world. Then remember that Georgia is perpetually ranked in the bottom five in the U.S. Layer onto that the fact that DeKalb seems to be headed away from the top in Georgia ...
A few years ago, the State changed the math curriculum to make it more “competitive” and shifted it from QCC to GPS for “more rigor.” The theory is that if we give the kids more rigor, they will ultimately rise to the occasion and perform better in the long run. My biggest problem with the math curriculum is that Georgia seems to have manufactured it by piecing together curricula from at least three other places “to compete internationally” (this is before we make it to the top 10 domestically). I believe it is primarily from South Carolina, Texas and Japan. Although my in-laws, who taught in the New York City schools for 25 or 30 years (not as math teachers) swear it looks an awful lot like the botched math curriculum that the NY schools tried for a few years and gave up on when none of their kids - from the ghetto or the wealthy suburbs - performed well on the Regents exams. I think it lasted in NY for at most three years.
My problem is that states like Massachusetts seem to always score in the top three states in math on the NAEP test (National Assessment for Educational Progress – a nationally normed test), which the Henderson Middle School 8th graders took this year but no results were released (along with those "missing in action" EOCT for Math I). There is, therefore, a math curriculum in Massachusetts, that has trained teachers, teaching materials, curriculum, etc. for K-12 (or K-8 if you leave high school alone for Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus/Trigonometry and Calculus, Statistics). There are teachers, I am sure, who would prefer our climate who could be swayed to moved south. Instead, our taxpayers, paid for our board of education to research a new curriculum in South Carolina, Texas and Japan and paid for new textbooks to be created (which since no other state teaches our math, they must have been created from scratch for all grades in all districts). Supplemental materials needed to be written, training materials needed to be created, and testing materials needed to be created. At each step of this process, entities and individuals made money – from tax dollars. All of this was already available for purchase in a place like Massachusetts. And the flip side? Our children get to be guinea pigs for the new Georgia curriculum to see if it works. We need the legislature to pass a law: If there is a state in the top five or top ten doing well, our state department of education isn’t allowed to make up our own version and test it on our kids (e.g. math, English, social studies (except Georgia Studies), Economics, etc.).
The Asian kids always did really well at the Sagamore Hills Math Tournament when my kids were in elementary school. They were the vast majority of the top five in each grade. It turns out that many of them attend “Saturday School” – a program called Kumon. It even turns out that some legislators I know use this program for their kids too. It’s all about drilling math facts. Over, and over, and over again. If the Kumon program works so well, why don’t we incorporate it and it’s teachers into our standard elementary school curriculum? I’m frustrated that we are recreating the wheel and testing it on our kids rather than using the “tried and true.”
Part of the new math curriculum uses a “train the teacher” approach – at the elementary level, at least in the DeKalb, one teacher per school – and not necessarily one trained in training other teachers or one who knows the most about math – but a teacher who was willing to spend the time for some extra cash, went for training on the curriculum. They were then supposed to train the others in their building on how to teach this really new math (some without text books).
Another aspect of the curriculum that could be a real problem was pointed out by a psychologist friend. She’s has a Ph.D. in psychology and listened to a mom describe 2nd grade math to her and commented that if a child were ADD or ADHD they would lose it. This is because, apparently, these kids need concepts drilled, the curriculum has a lot of jumping around and not too much drilling. This would be particularly bad if you had a child doing poorly in math and it was due to an undiagnosed problem along these lines, particularly leading up to those all important 3rd grade CRCTs. I’m not a psychologist or an expert on this curriculum so here I’m just passing on a conversation.
Another component of the curriculum is that the children are supposed to teach each other in learning groups (at least at the middle school level). This doesn’t work if there isn’t anyone in a group that knows what they are doing. It really doesn’t work if the teacher can’t help them figure it out. One of my son’s 8th grade friends is starting with Algebra I in 9th grade at a private school next year after last year at Henderson due to the ineffectiveness of this group work. My son, who was in Accelerated Math I this past year with an excellent teacher, should be ready for Algebra 2 according to the color-coded state chart on the curriculum. The chart indicates that he was supposed to have covered nearly all of geometry by now. The private schools we’ve spoken with believe he has only received half of a regular (old) geometry curriculum. The other half of the curriculum is not in the Math II curriculum either, it seems to be missing altogether. This does not facilitate the ability of families with teenaged children to move in and out of the state for business purposes (Coke – UPS – Chamber of Commerce.... WHERE ARE YOU?).
One of the top math teachers in the state, who helped develop the curriculum (a DCCS teacher), has told one of my twelfth grader’s friends that he has no idea what he will teach to his Math II kids this fall. When I was campaigning last year, a middle school math teacher I met said he was at a training session and he was told that Math II was going to be trained by DVD. Math I was trained so well that they have decided not to release the EOCT results. When I asked members of the school board how they were going to gauge whether the curriculum was working, the answer was the EOCT. For me, that isn’t the answer because that tests the state curriculum, it does not test whether they are receiving what they need to know for the PSAT, SAT, ACT and College. How about giving all 9th graders an old (already existing) Algebra EOCT at the start of the year to see just how much algebra they’ve absorbed under the new curriculum. Same for 10th graders for geometry?
My sister-in-law is not a math person. She has been enrolled in a Master of Arts, Teaching program at Brandies in Boston this past year. One of her first classes was on teaching Elementary math. One of the components of the Georgia math curriculum (possibly where they should have stopped on the elementary curriculum) is called “Everyday Math” and it is used by many of the private schools. It is not how we as adults were taught to do math – for example: they add across the page and they don’t borrow or re-group. My non-mathematical sister-in-law spent at least an hour a day in this class, five days a week for a month, with a top teacher, who has written a textbook series now being used in NY. They discussed the Georgia curriculum, which is being cited in this academic world as an example of what shouldn’t be done. By the end of the month in this class, the lightbulb went off for her and she told me that she could now teach math to any type of learner. Her brain, which is only 28 years old, had finally been reprogrammed successfully – she understood Everyday Math herself and appreciated its merits and tools and she felt as though she could adequately and appropriately convey these concepts to any child in elementary school. In Georgia, we are using “train the trainer” to reprogram the math teacher, over a much shorter duration of time, and many of these teachers are not new teachers but they have been teaching for many years. And we expect this to be successful?
Another good friend is involved in the AP Computer Science world here in Georgia. She trains those teachers and grades those exams. She has commented to me that she has seen a tremendous influx of math teachers who are all of a sudden interested in teaching computer science. That’s very good for computer science. What does it say about math?
The counties were given some latitude in how they implemented the state-wide standards. My understanding of how this was done is that DeKalb went “whole hog” and scratched the old curriculum and implemented the new curriculum. Cobb and Gwinnett, on the other hand, kept their old curriculum, and layered the integrated math on top of the old curriculum. It seems to me that the Cobb and Gwinnett approach may be working better (see, e.g. the CRCT middle school scores in each of these counties). There is also a program that enables the counties to opt around the curriculum that Gwinnett is pursuing.
I’m wondering how long it will take for all of this to play out. I’ve decided to post this column so I could share what I’ve pieced together and to provide a place for you to comment. Anyone want to take on getting a law passed?