Traditional Math Doesn’t Work, Except When It Does, Dept.


Mastery Schools in the Philadelphia area specializes in “turnaround schools”. As the article states: “Mastery doesn’t start new schools. Rather it takes over struggling ones from the Philadelphia School District and tries to revive them.”

It had adopted a “no excuses” model for schools, relying on strict behavior rules; also it adopted a procedural, direct-instruction mode for teaching math and other subjects. The results were spikes in state test scores upon the initial turn-around, only to find that scores plateaued after a few years. They concluded that perhaps they should try a more conceptual approach to teaching math such as the reformers like to see. The results were disastrous.

After year one of this change, Mastery’s test scores plummeted. The same was true at schools across the state — the new batch of tests was expected to be more difficult than their predecessors. Mastery’s braintrust noticed, however, that their math scores seemed to drop further than most.

The network’s leaders didn’t panic. They’d already accounted for some growing pains during this organization-wide pivot. Plus, there were all sorts of positive indicators in terms of student retainment, discipline trends, and teacher satisfaction.

Then the second year of test scores came out this summer.  Little changed. Mastery schools were still, on the whole, performing worse than they had prior to the shift away from “no excuses.” The pattern was especially obvious in mathematics.

So they went back to a combination of conceptual and procedural, with the emphasis on procedural. Scores went back up. Of note is this particular quote:

” “Mastery has essentially shifted to a “what works” model. If students can grasp the conceptual knowledge, great. If they can’t or if they come to Mastery so far behind they need a crash course, teachers are free to lean on the “skills and procedures” approach.

” “We had swung one way. And then we were swinging another way. And now we were trying to find that balance in instruction,” said Holmes, the principal at Clymer. “

Refomers will undoubtedly shrug their shoulders and say “It’s because they were relying too much on procedures before and when they switched to the conceptual method they probably weren’t doing it right.

Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.


3 thoughts on “Traditional Math Doesn’t Work, Except When It Does, Dept.

  1. Having been on the Ohio Math standards review committee for its renamed Common Core standards and assessments, my analysis of why math results improved, after increasing the conceptual content, would be that this is a result of the methods and vocabulary used on the assessments. Traditional math terminology has been set aside in favor of “informal” words, and as we all know only too well, “informal” methods are also required. To do well on these tests, one must learn the incoherent language of “progressive” pseudo math. This is especially true of the elementary grades. One must be aware of what is actually being tested, before concluding that better test results indicate more honest math learning.


  2. Why is it that (most) high school math teachers have no confusion about what generates math success and STEM preparation in students? They use traditional textbooks, directly teach, and enforce mastery with homework, quizzes, and tests. Rather, why are K-8 educators soooo confused about the process and goals? Why do they have to base their success on yearly and fuzzy CCSS state tests that claim to test for understanding and problem solving when the results come a year late and many tutoring dollars short – especially when CCSS’ top goal is only 75 percent success in college algebra – no remediation? Are K-8 educators just potted plant guides-on-the-side? They are in a better position to judge mastery and understanding and give student and parental feedback in a timely fashion. It’s as if they have no clue about how to educate students. They want full inclusion and a process that supposedly works automatically – to “trust the spiral.” Why even bother with yearly tests? Are they so clueless about math that they have to trust a fuzzy curriculum and yearly state tests?

    My view is that K-6 teachers define their turf as something quite different than content knowledge and skills. Add to that full inclusion and some vague sort of desire for “natural” learning and differentiated learning (not teaching) success, and you have an IQ and parental/tutor-driven education system that increases the academic gap. We parents of the best students know that IQ and any sort of natural learning process is never enough at any level. I had to help my son a LOT in K-8, but by the time he got to high school honors and AP classes, the education world changed and I didn’t have to do a thing.

    This is a systemic problem for K-8 educators and charter schools are not a complete solution. Most K-8 educators are cut from the same cloth. My son’s first grade teacher admonished my wife and I by saying that our son had a lot of “superficial knowledge.” All teachers should be required to get a degree in a content and skills-rich field, not one where they ironically get directly taught their turf – full inclusion, differentiated and natural learning, and a dislike for “mere” facts and “rote” skills – anything that will justify their social goals that end up having the opposite effect – hiding the skills and knowledge tracking at home and increasing the academic gap.


    • Elementary teachers usually don’t specialize in any subject. So it’s not unusual to have someone who’s background might be Music, to teach Art, or Math. But most don’t specialize in any specific topic, and have a more general background in education.

      It’s a bit different at the higher levels, which is usually why the elementary teachers are more prone to fads and trends in education than the teachers at the high school level. It’s not their fault; their environment, and teacher’s college indoctrinate them into believing old is bad, drills kill and to get with the times! Follow the trends and the fads…the world has changed, and math has as well.

      Except that it hasn’t. And in the meantime, an entire generation has been dumbed down. Want to make America great again? Educate young minds, by teaching them properly. Failing that, be sure to keep them in Kumon.


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