For those who are wondering what future math teachers learn in ed school, here is a concise summary:
Traditional mathematical teaching has never worked and has failed thousands of students.
The standard ed school catechism is that traditional math teaching is based on rote memorization with no understanding, and no connection between concepts. Another is that the conceptual underpinning of math procedures are not explained. According to ed school teaching, procedures are presented as a “bag of tricks” (such as “keep, change, flip” for dividing fractions). The evidence presented is simply that many adults do not remember how to solve certain problems. This stands as proof that the traditional methods are not effective–if they were, they would “stay with us.”
That people do not maintain proficiency in math as they age says less about traditional or reform math than about the way in which a population’s knowledge and skill base is maintained over a lifetime. It is not evidence of failure of traditional math. The results of not using math on a consistent basis can also be seen in a study conducted by OECD. In the study, people from ages 16-65 in over twenty countries, including the U.S., were given the same exam consisting of math computations and word problems. According to the study, “the percentage of U.S. adults between 55 and 65 years old who scored at the highest proficiency level (4/5) …was not significantly different than the international average for this age group. (Goodman, et al., 2013).” These findings can be used in tandem with the first argument above since people in the U.S. in the 55 to 65 age group learned math via traditional math teaching—and the differences in proficiencies between the U.S. and other countries is not significant.
This argument ignores that in countries doing well on such international tests, students learn math mainly via traditional means — and over the past two decades, increasing numbers of students in the U.S. have learned math using the reform-based methods. Reformers are quick to point out that Japan and perhaps other Asian countries actually use reform methods, ignoring the fact that many students are enrolled in “cram schools” (called Juku in Japan) which use the drilling techniques and memorization held in high disdain by reformers.
The argument also fails to consider that traditional math can also be taught poorly. There have always been good and bad teachers, as well as factors other than curriculum and pedagogy that influence the data. In order for such arguments to work, one would have to evaluate how achievement/scores vary when factors such as teaching, socioeconomic levels and other variables are held constant and when pedagogy or curriculum changes. Studies have been conducted that examine how math is taught in specific areas of North America, as well as looking at the common traits of high-performing systems across the world. They indicate that when both conventional and non-conventional (i.e., reform) math are taught by well-trained teachers, students learning under traditional mathematics instruction show much higher achievement than those learning under the reform math methodology. (Stokke, 2015; see here
Traditional math failed to adequately address the realities of educating a large, diverse, and rapidly changing population during decades of technological innovation and social upheaval.
This argument relies on the tracking argument, when many minority students (principally African Americans) were placed into lower level math classes in high school through courses such as business math. It goes something like this: “Most students did not go on in math beyond algebra, if that, and there were more than enough jobs that didn’t even require a high school diploma. Few went to college. Now most students must take advanced math, so opting out is not an option for them like it was for so many in the past.”
First, in light of the tracking of students which prevailed in the past, the traditional method could be said to have failed thousands of students because those students who were sorted into general and vocational tracks weren’t given the chance to take the higher level math classes in the first place — the instructional method had nothing to do with it. Also, I don’t know that most students must take advanced math in order to enter the job market. And I don’t think that everyone needs to take Algebra 2 in order to be viable in the job market.
Secondly, while students only had to take two years of math to graduate, and algebra was not a requirement as it is now, many of today’s students entering high school are very weak with fractions, math facts and general problem solving techniques. Many are counting on their fingers to add and rely on calculators for the simplest of multiplication or division problems. In the days of tracking and weaker graduation requirements, more students entering high school than now had mastery of math facts and procedures including fractions, decimals and percents.
Some blame the “changing demographics” on the decrease in proficiency, but this overlooks variables like poor curriculum and the reform-based approach to math which views memorization “workarounds” as deep understanding. Also frequently overlooked is the fact that students in low income families who make up the “changing demographic” cited in such arguments do not have access to tutoring or learning centers, while students in more affluent areas are not held hostage — dare I say “tracked”? — to poor curricula and dubious pedagogical practices.
Teachers use a combination of reform- and tradition-based methods so we are all saying the same things and there’s no point in making such distinctions.
I do not think that I am alone in drawing a distinction between reform and traditional modes of math teaching. While traditional math can be taught properly as well as badly, I believe that poor teaching is inherent in most if not all reform math programs. I base this on having seen good teachers required to follow programs that present content poorly, lack a coherent logical sequence and rely on questionable pedagogies.
I would like to see studies conducted to document how U.S. students who do well in math and science and pursue STEM majors and careers are learning math. The chances are fairly good that such investigations would show that in K-8, many students are getting support at home, from tutors, or from the many learning centers that are springing up all over the U.S. at rapid rates. Since tutors and learning centers (and parents) tend to use traditional methods for teaching math, I somehow doubt that the clientele are exceptions to some ill-defined rule. In my view, as well as the view of many parents and teachers I’ve met, there are few exceptions to the educational damage reform math programs have caused, even when such programs are taught “well.”
People may choose to use the information I’ve presented here — or persist in ignoring it. I don’t expect that I’ve changed anyone’s mind about anything, but I am always hopeful. that there are some exceptions.