This reinstitution of “hostilities” leaves our children at risk while educators cite inadequate research to fuss back and forth about how math really should be taught.
One reason the Math Wars of the 1990s were spawned was because educators kept coming up with conflicting research about the best ways to teach math. Disputes were frequent and bitter between supporters of “Progressive Education” philosophies and adherents of more traditional math instruction methods. Due in large measure to the generally very poor quality of education research, there never was a conclusive victory in that war, just a sort of armistice.
When Common Core came along, Progressive Education fans jumped on the opportunity to push their inadequately researched ideas into every classroom in the nation. Because Common Core essentially triggered a one-size-must-fit-all sort of education system, Progressives knew that if they could take over the reforms triggered by Common Core, their philosophies – right or wrong – would dominate classroom instruction for years.
Supporters of more traditional approaches to teaching math – approaches that at the least had many centuries of experience behind them – are not about to yield the field to the Progressives, partly because the research continues to show radically conflicting conclusions.
Thanks to Common Core, the Math Wars armistice was over.
Still, Progressives have been very successful in the Common Core era. Their ideas dominate in many classrooms across the country, a fact attested to by the huge number of questionable and confusing Common Core based workbook examples (see example below) and test questions that have exploded in the web.
But, serious questions about the real efficacy of the Progressive Education approach remain, and there is no shortage of new reports that provide more ammunition to the Math Wars.
One example is a relatively recent report about problems with the Progressive approach from the rather rarified American Education Research Association’s (AERA) report series.
According to this report, Progressive Education math ideas at best don’t work any better than traditional approaches for young children who are good at math, but the Progressive’s approach doesn’t work at all for many children who have difficulties with math.
Even more disturbing, the Progressive ideas seem to predominate in classrooms that have a large number of those math disability (MD) students.
Regardless of who is right, the continuing Math Wars raise a series of important questions about school choice.
For one thing, the continuing math squabbles indicate the education community still doesn’t have conclusive and compelling research about how to best teach math. That being the obvious case, is using a one-size-must-fit-all math instruction approach such as Common Core triggered in the best interests of students?
Would it be better to have a system that allows more choices for parents so that if the one-size approach offered in their child’s traditional public school isn’t working for that child, the parent could try something else?
It is very clear we need to do something while educators slug it out over how to teach math. Click the “Read more” link to see some dismal facts about the nation’s and Kentucky’s current math performance.
For starters, take a listen to this following video from the 2011 Miss USA Pageant, where contestants were asked if math should even be taught in schools. These young women are distressing examples of the failure of math instruction.
On a somewhat more serious note, untold numbers of US students, including many in Kentucky, wound up with obvious math shortcomings as a result of the confusion over how to teach math. For example, the NAEP Data Explorer web site shows that even in the latest, 2013 results from eighth grade math testing from the National Assessment of Educational Progress:
• Only 34 percent of the nation’s public school students were proficient or better in math.
o In Kentucky, that number was only 30 percent.
When we break it out by race:
• 44 percent of the nation’s white eighth graders were proficient or better in math.
o In Kentucky just 33 percent of the state’s whites performed this well.
• Among the nation’s black eighth graders, only a dismal 14 percent were proficient.
o In Kentucky only a truly depressing 11 percent of the state’s blacks met that target.
With a quarter of a century of KERA education reform behind us, you might think that educators would have finally figured out how to effectively teach math, but that sadly is not the case. Flash forward to the present and the Math Wars are on again, fueled in part by the continuing low quality of education research that fails to provide conclusive answers about what really works.
Absent research, once again Progressive Education adherents assertively tell us their methods work better for students. And, traditionalists are just as quick to say that methods like child-centered learning and so forth are not effective. But, while this battle rages, kids in Kentucky are the big losers so long as parents have no alternatives when it becomes obvious their children are not learning in Kentucky’s traditional public schools.