I use this space to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly. Unfortunately with all the great things happening in Georgia (mathematically speaking), we’ve taken a massive step backwards. A recent column by our State Superintendent pretty much sums up the direction he has mapped out for our students.
Below is the email I sent Superintendent Woods in reply to his column. I’m sharing in hope that we, the math education community, continue to advocate for students. “All of us are stronger than one of us” and we must push for student equity, not just in our classrooms and schools, but on a larger forum.
Dear Superintendent Woods,
Over the past four years, I have become increasingly inspired by teachers and students across Georgia. From Savannah to Dalton, from Augusta to Albany, I have worked alongside teachers as they meet the needs of each and every student.
I’m inspired by the reignited passion that teachers share for mathematics and math education. The level of conceptual understanding that has entered our classrooms is unparalleled and well received by the majority of teachers I encounter. I am continuously met by the phrase “I wish I learned math this way”, as empowered teachers connect with students that were once considered unreachable. They’ve witnessed students reason with mathematics at levels unfamiliar to our generation, but a requirement of the next.
As the father of two girls in public education and the husband of a first grade teacher, I am deeply concerned about the direction you are leading our children, mathematically. Your recent comments and interpretation of the Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) display a lack of understanding and research. This unfortunately undermines the work of educators throughout our state and will only contribute to “The Matthew Effect”, which is deeply rooted here in Georgia.
I am truly passionate about providing equity and opportunity for every student in Georgia, as I’m confident you are as well. With that being said, the memorization and procedural thinking that you endorse reach only a small percentage of our students. The standards, prior to recent revisions, made mathematics accessible to every child because they were heavily grounded in conceptual understanding. The conceptual approach to teaching mathematics has served the highest performing countries for years and is a model supported by decades of research.
In 2001 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released Adding it Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics, which provided a comprehensive review of mathematics in the United States. NCTM concluded that “Too few students in our elementary and middle schools are successfully acquiring the mathematical knowledge, the skill, and the confidence they need to use the mathematics they have learned.” This publication was made prior to the release of CCSS, which is why the Common Core Math Standards were widely embraced by many within, and outside of the mathematics community.
To further support the need for conceptual understanding we look to Constance Kamii’s 1998 article The Harmful Effects Of Algorithms In Grades 1-4. Kamii worked under the tutelage of Jean Piaget, renowned for his work and understanding of the cognitive development of children. Kamii cites two reasons why explicitly teaching algorithms are harmful: (1) they encourage children to give up their own thinking, and (2) they “un-teach” place value, thereby preventing children from developing number sense.
Your current message and push for procedural thinking misrepresents what’s best for students. In your recent column you state, “I regularly hear from parents unable to help their children with math homework”. Homework however, is a teaching issue, not a standards issue. Many times work is sent home before understanding is solidified at school. That is the real issue. In a 2008 research publication from NCTM entitled What Does the Research Say About Homework? NCTM found that drawing any conclusion in the correlation between homework and math achievement would be “imprudent”. So I ask the question, what is the purpose of math homework for elementary students?
The second part of your column I would like to address is how “math teachers struggle to master instruction due to a lack of textbook options”. Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. Just as doctors don’t perform surgery on patients through a manual, teachers shouldn’t be dependent on textbooks. Textbooks don’t teach students, teachers do. For years, teachers have been underserved when it comes to professional learning. They have not been provided the opportunity or time to properly equip themselves with the necessary tools. This has left teachers under supported in their efforts to reach the level of coherence and rigor expected of CCSS. Our teachers are our best resource and it’s time we invest in their development, not in textbooks as you suggest. As leaders in the math community we must continue to find ways to support our teachers, not simply apply Band-Aids and textbooks to stop the bleeding. As the State Superintendent of Georgia’s school system I ask when and how will we address the root of the problem, which precedes the implementation of Common Core?
As a member of the Georgia Mathematics Advisory Council and Mathematics Standards Review Committee I am deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and disregard for research that have accompanied the recent decisions impacting math in Georgia. In January, a team of math education experts convened at the Department of Education to review and revise our current standards. Although I am unable to discuss the specifics of the meeting, I can specifically state what was not discussed, which was the inclusion of basic arithmetic algorithms and the memorization of basic facts. Now to hear that “Georgia’s Standards direct school districts, schools, and teachers to use basic arithmetic algorithms, fact fluency, and standard processes for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division” is a concern. The fact that the aforementioned statement regarding algorithms and basic facts was included as an afterthought to our standards and without the feedback of the Math Advisory Council is alarming. Every document, statement, and decision released by the DOE’s math department has been vetted and supported by research, until recently. Your statement undermines the work of the Georgia Department of Education’s Math Team and the work of math professionals across Georgia, who have tirelessly worked for the DOE over the past four years, myself included. What elementary math experts were consulted for the inclusion of traditional algorithms and basic facts? What research supports this decision?
I am well aware that traditional algorithms and procedural thinking worked well when we were students however we are not the norm. The collective voice that has shunned Common Core, or the “Funny Math Methods” as you refer to, are the same individuals that are not comfortable with math to begin with. The math-phobia that exists in our state is generational and we must take the time to break the cycle if our students are to succeed. You are an advocate for individualized learning however the procedural and explicit instruction of mathematics that you currently push, undermine the very thing you strive for.
As a concerned K-12 District Coordinator, an Ed.S graduate of the University of Georgia in Math Education, a member of Georgia’s Mathematics Advisory Council, a husband, and father, I look forward to your open response that addresses the concerns of myself and many educators across Georgia.