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Another View -- Peter R. Devine: Changing curriculum — again — will not improve math skills

November 14. 2013 11:20PM

There’s been much discussion in this newspaper and elsewhere about whether to implement the Common Core Standards into New Hampshire’s schools. As a math educator, I find the battle over this proposed curriculum change somewhat amusing. Yes, our students lag behind other countries in math skills; but it’s been that way for decades, and the curriculum is the least of the problems.

Our public schools are failing us and, as a part-time professor of mathematics for over a dozen years, I see evidence of this every day in the college classroom. I see otherwise intelligent students who turn to a calculator to add 5 + 6, or to multiply 3 x 4. One student used a calculator to get the answer to 50 – 50. Many students now in college never memorized basic multiplication facts of the type most of us learned by the fourth grade. Will changing the curriculum change that? I presume basic arithmetic is still somewhere in the math curriculum, with or without the Common Core Standards.

Common Core is not the first proposed major curriculum change; in fact, it happens every couple of decades, and I’ve witnessed several such changes in my life-long work as both a math teacher and math textbook publisher. Remember the “New Math?” But Common Core is the first attempt at a national curriculum, so even the politicians are involved now. That can’t be a good thing.

The New Math on the ’60s focused on a more rigorous development of principles, but that approach failed. That was followed by a “back to basics” movement that focused on basic competencies; and that too failed. And more recently, we have the questionable practice of giving all students a calculator at all times. What do all these curriculum changes have in common? No matter what the curriculum, our students have continually lagged behind the students of other countries in performance. Clearly, we should be focusing on our schools, not on the curriculum.

If you have a child in a public elementary school, there is a very good chance that the child is learning math from a teacher who genuinely dislikes math, or who knows very little of it, or both. It’s not so much the elementary school teachers’ fault. When they majored in education, they likely learned at a college whose ivory-tower education professors focused more on principles like multiculturalism and “equity” (fairness) than on actual content and pedagogy. Given that reality, imagine the further frustration felt by these teachers when, after they finally get comfortable with a curriculum, it gets changed for no particularly good reason, forcing them to learn new materials and new procedures.

And what about your child in middle school or high school? Nearly 30 percent of students overall, and about 50 percent of students in urban areas, are being taught math by someone who is totally unqualified to do so. Why are there so few qualified math teachers? There is one pay scale for all teachers, leading to teacher shortages in some areas (math and science), and surpluses in others. The laws of supply and demand seem to mean nothing in education. It happens that well qualified math and physics teachers can often do much better in other lines of work. Thus, in our secondary schools, math is too often being taught by someone who didn’t even minor in mathematics in college.

Further, at all grade levels you will find the occasional totally incompetent teacher who is protected by the union, and whom the principal feels powerless to fire. So instead, the administration waits for the incompetent teacher to retire, and again, it’s our students who lose out.

So, against this backdrop, it’s not a surprise that U.S. students can’t keep up with the students in most other countries. What is quite surprising, though, is that anyone thinks that changing the curriculum — again — will correct this.

The educators and the politicians can fight over the Common Core Standards all they want, but in the end, all they’re doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Peter R. Devine is an adjunct mathematics professor at Plymouth State University, former adjunct mathematics professor at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass., a freelance writer, editor, and publisher of mathematics curriculum materials, and a former public school mathematics teacher in Stamford, Conn.

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