The sun block solution

In 1987, then Dept of Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel when questioned about the deterioration of the ozone layer in the atmosphere suggested that people wear hats, sunglasses and protective sun creams to protect against skin cancer. He was soundly criticized for a statement that addressed the symptoms but not the cause.

A similar attitude is seen in education–particularly math education–from vendors promoting the next shiny new thing designed to cure educational woes. I just finished reading two articles. The first is a PR puff piece written by “guest contributor” praising the program “Teach to One”. It discusses that students who lack foundational skills in math is a big problem–but “personalized learning” offers a solution to this ill.

“It’s difficult to teach a class that engages both lower-ability and higher-ability children because you can’t always address multiple needs simultaneously. Traditional teaching approaches will always leave some students behind.”

Oh, and while they’re on the subject of “traditional teaching”, they go on to define it via the usual mischaraterization:

“The majority of students receive traditional classroom education in orderly rows as they study from scripted materials. Their everyday math lessons look very similar.”

First of all, maybe in high school the majority of students are taught in a traditional manner, but in K-6, and even 7 and 8, student-centered, small group/collaborative learning with teachers “facilitating” has been a growing trend over the last 30 or so years. Students in “orderly rows”: that’s supposed to be bad. “Scripted materials”: do they mean textbooks? Right, we all know textbooks are bad; everything is sequenced, organized, with students doing “similar” lessons every day.

What has really happened over the the years is an emphasis on “understanding” over the dreaded memorization and procedure–measures which have been blamed for the poor mathematical performance of students in the U.S. To wit, when Barbara Oakley wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, calling for more practice and memorization in math, the champions of the educational party line condemned her as an educational pariah.

I realize that the people at “Teach to One” are responding to the problem of inadequate preparation in foundational math. It is a marketing opportunity, just like deterioration of the ozone layer would be a boon for sunscreen and sunglass manufacturers. Apparently there is no marketing opportunity for textbooks and pedagogical approaches that have been proven to be effective.

This became painfully obvious to me when shortly after reading the puff piece in the South Florida Reporter, I read another one in Education Next. The article was very detailed with graphs, charts and examples. It was authored by Joel Rose whose bio at the end reads: “Joel Rose is co-founder and chief executive officer at New Classrooms, which published The Iceberg Problem, from which this essay is adapted.

Joel Rose is also quoted in the South Florida Review article, and New Classrooms is the company that produces “Teach to One”.

I imagine that Education Next thought that Rose’s article provided a strong argument for providing educational opportunities to students who lack foundational skills. And while “personalized learning” has become the shiny new thing in education, it has also become a cure-all for a problem that really should not exist.

I would like to see approaches that go beyond treating symptoms, and address the causes of this lack of foundational skills and knowledge in math. Barbara Oakley’s article addresses things that can and should be done, but are not done because, well, memorization and practice (“drill and kill”) are presumed to have failed thousands of students. I have written about this mischaracterization extensively and won’t harp on it here. (If you’ve missed it, then read this article which also appears in my book “Math Education in the U.S.”)

Readers of my posts know how I feel about Education Week; i.e., I find they exercise a cheerleading attitude for edu-trends and, like many other journos, mischaracterize traditional teaching methods. Their journalistic biases pass as objective reporting.

Thus, it is ironic that an article which appeared a year ago in Education Week discussed how a federally funded study showed that Teach to One was not living up to the hype. The study was conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. The director of the study, Douglas D. Ready, stated that “there is no causal evidence that Teach to One has either positive or negative effects on student outcomes.”

For those new to all this, particularly parents wondering why their children are being subjected to the nonsense that passes as education, it must be hard to know who to believe.

A word to those parents: You’re not crazy. And if teachers are telling you not to worry because the way math used to be taught didn’t work, but method A, B or C does–well then, nod politely and start looking for alternatives.


7 thoughts on “The sun block solution

  1. I commiserate with your disgust. But I’d like to point out that Education Next has long ceased to be willing to shake the educational establishment. Now it became mostly middle-of-the-road publication promoting venture-funded ideas.


  2. “It’s difficult to teach a class that engages both lower-ability and higher-ability children because you can’t always address multiple needs simultaneously. Traditional teaching approaches will always leave some students behind.”

    Bwa Ha Ha! All K-6 schools are now about full inclusion and social promotion. All of their differentiated instruction (learning) techniques are complete failures, and I saw many of them with my son. The classroom ability and willingness range is much larger!!! Traditional teaching had a lower range, gave grades, and used summer school or keeping kids back a year. I distinctly remember that effect on students. Now kids get fuzzy non-grade rubrics that are meaningless.

    “The majority of students receive traditional classroom education in orderly rows as they study from scripted materials. Their everyday math lessons look very similar.”

    Bwa Ha Ha 2! Everyday Math is all about repeated partial learning each year. That’s called circling with the onus on the kids and parents. I distinctly remember one mother being pissed off because three of her kids in three different grades were covering almost the same material. EM specifically tells teachers to “trust the spiral”, but in fifth grade, a group of parents revolted because some of their bright kids were still adding 7+8 on their fingers. I’m not making it up. I remember that meeting clearly.

    From their web site:

    “Personalized learning does not have to mean students are working in isolation. They can experience a variety of instructional approaches and can be continually regrouped with other students who share common needs. While technology can play a role, it does not mean that students must spend all of their time on computers.”

    Yes! They can regroup kids at the same level with common needs into a separate room with their own full time teacher and call it a different grade. If they regroup this way in mixed classroom, then why not put up a partition or a wall or just put them into a separate room with their own teacher? If they don’t have common ability grouping or don’t have constant teacher attention, then they will have to user computers individually. Any other solution is just play learning to cover over the assumptions and trade-offs of full inclusion they really don’t want to talk about. They just claim better understanding and send out a lot of BS.

    High schools use a full inclusion environment, but everyone is sorted academically into separate classes. K-6 schools need to do this, but they choose not to. Social, not academic reasons drive that decision, but they do not want to admit that they can’t pull it off. They just keep trying new things like “Teach to One” where the goal is to try once again to cover over reality.


    • @SteveH, I’m pretty sure the “everyday math” lessons mentioned in the quoted excerpt refers to every day in the sense of day-to-day classroom activity, rather than the Everyday Math program, which is an entirely other thing. I had to do a double-take myself as I was reading, to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.


      • I know, but I thought it was pretty funny that term was used when they were complaining about traditional math.


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