Unclear on the Concept, Dept.


What with the PISA scores out, and US not doing as well as other countries, the finger pointing begins. What are we doing wrong? What are other countries doing that we should be doing.

Well, of course, we must not be teaching math right, and Common Core happens to be handy so let’s blame that. But as someone points out in this article:

“You can certainly point the fingers at many things but Common Core wouldn’t be one of them,” added Erben. “Common Core hasn’t been around long enough to suggest in any way, shape or form that it is responsible for the declining U.S. PISA results that have been going on for many more years.”

Good point. Common Core is just the gasoline on the fire of math reform that’s been raging for the last twenty or so years. So let’s blame something else. Like not enough time spent on science:

“Those countries that had significantly higher science scores devoted more hours in school to science, giving kids much more time to do scientific research and experimentation in the classroom,” said Erben. “If you restrict the number of science and math hours then, of course, they’re not going to do as well.” 

Let me see if I can shed some more light on this. If you restrict the hours of science and math, it will have an effect–that’s true. But so will having students do hands-on, inquiry-based, student centered learning in K-6. Math appreciation has never been a good substitute for actual math learning. And as long as they’re asking the question about what other nations are doing, how about taking into account how higher scoring countries tend to use the traditional methods held in disdain by math reformers here.  And before you jump up and say “But in Japan they teach by discovery, I saw it in a videotape…” consider this article that lays to rest some misconceptions of how math is taught in Japan. Consider also that in Japan and other Asian countries that much outside tutoring goes on (via private tutors, and “jukus” known as “cram schools”) which rely on memorization and other things considered anathema by reformists.

But we’re not likely to see an article like that any time soon. And for those articles that DO talk about what’s wrong, the authors of such articles get called “racists”. (As the comments section of this recent article of mine demonstrates.).

What’re ya gonna do?


One thought on “Unclear on the Concept, Dept.

  1. Hey! Let’s collect some “Big Data!”

    Does the big data include details on how much help is given at home or with tutors? Does it include exactly what and how math is taught at home or with tutors? The problem with big data is that it doesn’t capture exactly what’s happening. The data collected is discrete and influenced by those collecting the data. If you get data from exams that claim to test problem solving or even numeracy, can you determine specific problems in skill areas like the times table or fractions? I was in a parent/teacher meeting once long ago where our fuzzy state test told us that our problem solving numbers were down. The solution was to spend more time on problem solving. I’m not making that up.

    People seem to love big data and hate anecdotes, but the anecdotes have all of the information. Big data doesn’t. On top of that, big data is all mixed up and people will see only what they want to see. There may be a correlation, but they might come to the conclusion that wet roads cause rain or that more hands-on science will fix math.

    With anecdotes, however, you can see exactly what’s going on. Although the solution might not apply to many students, sitting around with big data looking for one problem to solve won’t get you anywhere. For complex systems like education, there are many different problems and each one has to be analyzed in detail to come up with solutions. You do that by identifying specific individual problems and carefully working backwards to find the answer. You can’t do that with big data giving you a “problem solving” rubric or score on a state-wide yearly test. Just the idea of yearly tests providing any useful educational feedback is fundamentally flawed. It’s even worse for individual students. It’s a year late and many tutoring dollars short. What are teachers – potted plants? They see the kids every day. What weekly feedback do they give to parents – rubrics that are meaningless and class work and tests that get hidden away in portfolios? My son’s work was kept in a portfolio at school and I had to make an appointment with each teacher after school (I had to take time off from work) to meet and review my son’s portfolio. I’m not making this up either.

    You can also look at the individual success anecdotes. You will likely see a more direct correlation and causation than looking at failure anecdotes. Anecdotes have gotten a bad reputation, but they have all of the information and they rarely apply to just one person. If you come at a complex problem from the direction of big data, you won’t be able to separate the interacting problems to find proper solutions. I don’t see the fascination with CCSS, PISA, and TIMSS. What can they tell you that teachers shouldn’t already know? You might look at these tests to see if there is a big sort of problem, but they won’t give you any answers for individuals. I don’t collect big data to fix problems in my computer programs where many different things can go wrong. I find individual errors, understand them, and then carefully work backwards to an answer. Errors (anecdotes) are like gold. The solution rarely ever fixes just one thing.

    Big data is fundamentally flawed. It tries to replace thinking with statistics. It reminds me of the students I used to have who tried to fix their computer programs using guess and check rather than studying the individual lines of their code.


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