Op-Ed

The Providence (RI) Journal

January 31, 2001

By Michael McKeown

HOW TO IMPROVE EDUCATION IN MATH

A RECENT STUDY of public education published in Education Week (http://www.edweek.com/sreports/qc01/) scored Rhode Island in the bottom five states for Standards and Accountability. In spite of being the 11th highest state in per-pupil spending, Rhode Island scores behind adjacent states Connecticut and Massachusetts in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores, and even scores behind George W. Bush's Texas.

Poor standards, poor accountability and poor performance in Rhode Island are causally related. To guide solid education, a clear set of goals is needed. The standards of learning serve this purpose. In elementary mathematics, the standards should, most importantly, establish a clear path by which students prepare to master algebra. To follow this path, students master additional appropriate skills and concepts each year.

In order that the path be clear for all students, parents and teachers, there should be a separate set of standards for each grade. The standards should grow in depth and complexity each year. Standards that cover broad grade bands, or that repeat essentially unchanged from year to year, cannot smoothly guide student progress. Standards should also state, explicitly, what students should know, understand and be able to do at each grade.

Such clarity lets all those concerned -- students, parents, teachers, administrators and school boards -- know exactly what is expected.

Clarity also makes it possible to assess student progress relative to the standards on a regular basis. This allows remediation, appropriate placement, and teacher accountability. Unclear, vacuous standards, such as "Students will become creative problem solvers," are neither grade-specific nor useful in establishing grade-specific learning goals. They should be avoided.

The Rhode Island Standards (http://www.ridoe.net/standards/frameworks/math/elem.html) fail all these criteria. They cover broad grade bands (K-4, 5-8, 9-12) and lack any specifics that would allow a clear picture of what students should know, do and understand.

For comparison, look at the California Math Standards, which were rated tops in the nation in an independent review published by the Fordham Foundation. The California Standards were written in direct response to Rhode Island-like standards and the negative consequences for California's students. The California standards set a course, starting in kindergarten, by which students progress grade by grade, leading to algebra in eighth grade.

Surely, this is a goal toward which Rhode Island parents would like their children to strive. Good standards guide the adoption of quality curricula leading to mastery of the material of the standards. Unfortunately, Rhode Island couples a lack of real standards with a philosophy based on the idea that students should rediscover the great ideas of mathematics and invent their own ways of doing such basic things as multiplying and dividing whole numbers and fractions.

This leads to adoption of programs such as Everyday Math (a.k.a. Chicago Math) and Investigations in Number, Data and Space (a.k.a. TERC). These programs lack textbooks, denigrate time-tested, effective methods of calculation, fail to teach to mastery, and downgrade the numeric and analytical skills that lead to and then build from algebra.

To improve, we need to know how we are doing. This means testing all students every year on the material of the standards. Information from testing allows appropriate adjustments in the system and lets parents and the public know how their children and the system are working.

This system benefits all students, but in the long run, high, clear standards and yearly, uniform assessment particularly protect students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers in East Greenwich or Barrington, even if they are using weak programs, usually have high expectations for their students, starting from kindergarten.

In less advantaged areas, it is far too easy (and far too common) for teachers to have lower expectations for their students. For example, the distribution of teacher-given letter grades is nearly the same in advantaged schools and disadvantaged schools, yet external, objective measures of performance show vast differences. High, clear standards, with testing and accountability, make it clear that all students deserve, from the day they enter the system, the same high expectations and opportunities, that only our top students are offered currently.

Michael McKeown is a professor of medical science at Brown University and co-founder of Mathematically Correct, a nationwide citizens group working to improve mathematics education.

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