The possibility of being wrong, Dept.


I was reading  this article about why Massachusetts’ schools are better than Rhode Island’s and came to this rather intriguing paragraph:

“Schools have to embrace a new way of teaching, he said, where learning is hands-on, extends beyond the classroom and is geared toward the needs of the individual learner.

“There is a more personal, real-world approach that defines the current edge of education reform,” he said. “It’s time for both states to move forward on this front, not double-down on a solution that was appropriate 20 years ago.”

I’ve heard this argument before. First of all, 20 years ago takes us to 1996, which is a time when NCTM’s standards were gaining a strong foothold and inquiry-based, hands-on learning was becoming a mainstay of lower grades math instruction. But ignoring that, the question in my mind is why the traditional teaching methods that were in use for many years and deemed to be appropriate are now suddenly deemed inappropriate. Is it because of the usual “Traditionally taught math never worked” trope, or are there other reasons?

Is it because we have to prepare students for jobs that haven’t been created yet? Or because everything can be answered with Google, so students have to learn how to learn rather than acquire knowledge and skills? Is it about having fun and liking math? And is the college trig class and other math requirements considered non-essential even for engineers?

Or perhaps there are other reasons often overlooked in articles such as these, and in discussions among the edu-literati. One reason why the Mass. schools outperformed others over a certain period could be because of adoption of a content-based curriculum called Core Knowledge.  The same thing happened with math in California with the 1998 curriculum which resulted in definite improvements compared to how students were performing with the 1992 framework (which drew heavily on NCTM’s standards.)  But that couldn’t be the case because everybody knows that such improvements are short-term unlike the current slew of hands-on, PBL and student-centered approaches.


3 thoughts on “The possibility of being wrong, Dept.

  1. Sigh. I’ve had email discussions with the writer of that article in the past. She tries to be independent, but like many, can’t figure out what the problems are let alone how to fix them. It’s true that Mass. is not necessarily a state to follow, especially now that many towns are selecting to use the PARCC test over MCAS that supposedly created the great results. some even think that PARCC is a stronger and better test. However, the highest level in PARCC (“distinguished”) is a 75% likelihood of passing a course in college algebra. But one-third of MA public school graduates attending state colleges (under MCAS) are still placed into remedial classes. Which one is better? Neither, and one MA educational leader says that: “We’ve gotten as far as we can with the foundational elements of high standards and assessing where students are, but it’s not enough. We’re leaving too many kids behind.”

    OK, so where does Linda Borg ( a journalist) go with this information? She climbs on board the same train that so many others believe in without any proof because, well, it just sounds good. Rather than play catch up with MA, some in RI want to go back to its “roots”(???) – to have students “demonstrate their ability to solve problems, to analyze and to collaborate by creating portfolios of their work or completing a senior research project.” Standardized tests are supposedly for “important, but simplistic, skills.” “They are not successful at measuring whether students have acquired complex skills.” OK, so students are failing tests on basic skills (that are important!), so maybe they will test complex skills, where what, students will magically do better or you will have better feedback to fixing problems in schools? No. yearly tests only provide general feedback for whether a school system is failing or not. For individual students, the information is a year late and many tutoring dollars short.

    Living in RI, I saw my son do the required senior project. The standards are incredibly low and meaningless for graduation and the project is more of an annoyance for the better students working on their grades, applying to colleges, and preparing to take the AP tests. In fact, many parents know that state testing is meaningless way back in K-6. “Distinguished?” Don’t rely on that. So, better students and their parents ignore state testing completely while states struggle with those who don’t have parents or tutors who ensure basic learning and skills. They don’t ask us parents what we did. They just wander off into their own fairly land of group projects and “complex thinking.” Hello! Some students are successful. Why? Ask us parents. We are not just turning off the TV and taking our kids to museums.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We just saw disappointing statewide test scores explained by “we’re teaching for understanding.” Apparently, whatever “understanding” they are teaching for doesn’t translate into proficiency in reading and math. So we need a different test to assess for “understanding” instead. Obviously.


    • The standard criticism about traditional math is that students are “doing” math but not “knowing” math. Apparently “knowing” math without being able to “do” math is considered superior by the apologists for the statewide test scores. As long as they’re able to “think like mathematicians” then I guess everything is hunky dory. Except most mathematicians I know seem to be able to “do” math.


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