School has started again and students are now getting settled into a new school year after a long, HOT, summer of fun in the sun.
Many students starting back to school will be in the Everyday Mathematics curriculum adopted by local public schools and making its debut this school year in the largest private schools on the west side.
As I wrote last spring in a blog comparing Everyday Math with the new Iowa Common Core Math Standards, the “Math Wars” of the past couple decades is rearing its head in our local schools. Today’s headline in the Des Moines Register: “Few Iowans Prepared for College”, stresses the education reform needed to boost Iowa student scores in math and science.
I have the distinct privilege to work with young people from all over our community. We have students at every grade level and ability coming to our center to get caught up, keep up, or get ahead in the math classroom. And for many of those students that fall behind, the curriculum used in the classroom is not serving their needs and teaching math in a way that makes sense to them. This can be especially true for those in Everyday Math.
The authors of the Everyday Mathematics (EDM) program define it as an enriched, comprehensive, and balanced mathematics curriculum for grades Pre-K-6. Students learn computational skills as well as a broad range of mathematics concepts including data and probability, geometry and spatial sense, measures and measurement, algebra and uses of variables.
One hallmark of EDM is its 'spiraling' approach that skips ahead to advanced topics before most kids have the fundamentals in place to succeed with the material. EDM packs a lot of topics into each grade and moves ahead before most kids have mastered a topic. The spiral will come back to the topic at a later date; however, many students that failed to master it the first time are starting over from the beginning and never reach a mastery level, let alone a proficiency level. Another issue many parents have is with EDM’s focus on various alternative algorithms taught throughout the program. They can be confusing to many students as well as to their parents tasked with helping on their child’s homework.
Everyday Math, like other "constructivist" curricula, features minimal direct instruction; rather kids are put in groups to construct their own understanding. This is a valid goal and could work well with some subjects. But math requires a base knowledge of arithmetic and number sense that makes higher-level understanding possible. A group of second graders will not ‘discover’ on their own what it took mathematicians thousands of years to uncover. Rather the students develop “buggy” procedures that may show understanding, but do not lead to the correct answers.
To be fair, the EDM curriculum can be great for advanced students that do not require lots of extra practice before moving to a new topic. And like all subjects, if being taught by good teachers, with the proper training, can be done well. However, many teachers are now seeing the need to supplement with non-EDM materials to be in compliance with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which Iowa has signed onto to implement along with 44 other states by 2014. This includes teaching the standard algorithms that EDM has either left out (long-division) or pushed to later grades.
The authors of “fuzzy” math programs such as EDM are now scrambling to introduce new editions that match up to the CCSS. However, the “mile-wide inch deep” approach that shuns the standard algorithms and spirals through a litany of advanced topics in a given year, does not lend to the CCSS authors’ vision of math education in the US.
The two main conclusions from the CCSS authors are that math education in the US must be more focused and coherent in order. For US students to compete with the highest performing countries in math and science, we must change our mindset and learn from their approaches. Singapore, consistently at the top of world rankings in math and science, has adopted the expression: “Teach Less, Learn More”. They are teaching fewer topics, sometimes a forth of what US schools teach in a year, but with a deeper level of understanding before moving on to more advanced math.
Math is a subject that builds on prior topics. If students are rushed ahead without the pre-requisite skills to succeed, they will often never catch up. Also, the need for higher standards for math education sometimes get misinterpreted as the need to push kids as far and as fast as possible. The trend in some local school districts is to advance kids into college-prep Algebra I as early as 5th and 6th grade. But the math kids learn in 6th to 8th grade is the math we use the most often in our jobs and everyday lives. Perhaps we should spend more time, not less, on these critical topics that form the foundation of all higher-level math. See my next blog for a discussion on this topic or my past blog on “Algebra Too Soon”. In the meantime, please leave a comment and let me know what your child’s teachers or schools are doing to supplement Everyday Math.
Dan Gehlbach is the owner and center director of Mathnasium – The Math Only Learning Center, located in West Des Moines and within the Waukee School District. Dan lives in Urbandale. Year round, the center helps kids get caught up, keep up and get ahead while they develop confidence and a love for math. For more information call 440-MATH or consult the web site at www.mathnasium.com/westdesmoines.