Where’s the Teaching? The Problem With Reform Mathematics

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I spent the majority of my childhood in a conservative region of Minnesota, a backwards sort of place where education was still done the old-fashioned way, despite the reforms that were beginning to take place in more liberal parts of the country. Throughout middle school and into high school, I never was taught about “critical thinking strategies,” did reading assignments without being required to mark up the entire page in highlighter, and learned math by having a teacher stand in front of the class and actually explaining things to us. What a culture shock it was when, midway through my high school education, I moved across the country to a place where they “taught” us reformed mathematics.

I say “taught” in the most derisive way possible. There was no teaching involved, at any level. Rather, the instructor would give us a worksheet or tell us to follow the instructions laid out in our textbook, where we would be directed to experimentally figure out math ourselves, with minimal guidance. Ideally, this method gives students a deeper understanding of concepts in mathematics by forcing them to construct their own knowledge through their own experiences. But realistically, does any parent expect their child to learn to multiply confidently and efficiently by playing with counters?

In the quest to give our children a better conceptual understanding of how math works, teaching students to actually be able to do math competently has been relegated to a secondary position. And by lessening the importance of actually being able to do math competently, we are left with students who ultimately fail to meet nationwide math standards and are unable to progress to higher levels of mathematics.

A sobering example of the negative effects of new methods of mathematics teaching has made itself apparent in the state of Washington. In Seattle—a cultured city with two times more college graduates than the national average, and home to tech-savvy companies such as Amazon.com and Microsoft—only half of tenth graders enrolled in Seattle Public Schools were able to meet the state’s standard for math. To make matters worse, a study by Achieve, Inc. concluded that the state’s mathematics assessment was the least rigorous out of the seven states they examined. This naturally leads one to wonder what exactly is being taught to these students.

The answer? Nothing. Reform math makes kids figure it out by themselves.

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