Controlling Math Curriculum

(Guest Post by Ze’ev Wurman)

Recent weeks saw a welcome attention to the groupthink that saturates what is mellifluously called the “education reform” community. I thought Rick Hess’ (School Reform Is the New Ed. School) and Jay’s (Ed Reform is Animal Farm) were particularly powerful, but their main focus was – as it should be – on the systemic and structural aspects of school reform that has become the new orthodoxy, and on the reform movement character becoming essentially a power struggle for control, not much different from what ed schools and teacher unions already do.

Here I want to focus on a particular aspect of this change by school reformers – the effort to  impose their curricular ideas based not on what works but on their interest in centralized control, and about their efforts to silence objections and dissent.

Last week the Fordham Institute published its 2016 look at Common Core math implementation in the classroom. Fordham has been a big Common Core supporter from early on so it is not surprising that despite finding skepticism and frustration among parents and students, and despite finding enthusiasm among elementary teachers (who largely know little math) but a negative response among middle school teachers (who actually know some math), Fordham still is supportive:

For the first time in our nation’s history, there is a high level of consistency regarding what’s taught in American elementary and middle school math classrooms. Fewer teachers appear to be closing their classroom doors and doing their own thing.  … [S]tudents are being exposed to fewer topics in more depth, spending significant time on applications.” (p. 44)

What struck me was the praise for the “high level of consistency,” justified by students spending “significant time on applications.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by Fordham’s love of consistency. After all, it was Checker Finn who signed the 2011 Shanker Manifesto that called for uniform national standards – not only in math and English, but also in civics, the sciences, and health and physical education. Clearly, centralized uniformity has been a high priority for Fordham for quite some time.

But what about the praise for “significant time on applications” brought by Common Core, supposedly Fordham’s  justification why it is OK to impose Washington’s will on the country? Just three days before the Fordham report was published, a new large study of students found that the “difference between the math scores of 15-year-old students who were the most exposed to pure math tasks and those who were least exposed [and exposed instead to real-world problems] was the equivalent of almost two years of education.” Surely if Fordham was driven by research evidence rather than by faddish support of centralized education it would have at least restrained itself from blindly supporting one-size-fits-all model, when a year old study clearly says:

[G]iven the pervasiveness of the belief in a conceptual-then-procedural sequence despite the lack of empirical evidence, would additional research convince those who hold the belief? In fact, widespread endorsement of this belief among mathematics education researchers may help to explain why so little research has directly evaluated it. Thus, it seems important to briefly consider nonempirical reasons that might support this belief and which could impede progress in addressing it … [C]ulture may play into the persistence of this belief. The directionality of developing conceptual and procedural knowledge seems to only be debated in the USA. This may be because in the USA and some other Western cultures, practice is not believed to aid the development of understanding. In many Asian countries, by contrast, practice is viewed as a route toward understanding, where there is a public perception that only through a great deal of practice can true understanding be developed. Our anecdotal interactions with mathematics education researchers in non-Western countries suggests that they are confused by the debate in the USA. Elsewhere, it is taken as obvious that procedural knowledge can lead to conceptual knowledge (and vice versa).

I wanted to comment on Fordham’s site about this, and then I realized that … Fordham has eliminated reader comments. I guess it was tired of even those few dissents that found their way to their pages. So no more of that! Now that I think of it, Education Next, the journal that “will steer a steady course, presenting the facts as best they can be determined, giving voice (without fear or favor) to worthy research, sound ideas, and responsible arguments” also decided recently that giving voice to sound ideas does not include readers’ (moderated) comments and shut them off without warning. So much for openness to dissent, so much for the voice of the parents and the unwashed masses, so much for being research driven.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

8 Responses to Controlling Math Curriculum

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Note that this ecstatic celebration could apply regardless of what was being imposed – quack progressivism, racist jingoism, mandatory left-handedness – as long as something is being imposed:

    For the first time in our nation’s history, there is a high level of consistency regarding what’s taught in American elementary and middle school math classrooms. Fewer teachers appear to be closing their classroom doors and doing their own thing.

    God save us! Anything but horrible, horrible freedom and diversity!

  2. sstotsky says:

    Let me add to Ze’ev Wurman’s comments by saying it won’t be long before there won’t be any need to silence dissent. Few kids (maybe those homeschooled will be the happy few) will ever know what dissent is.

  3. Fordham and Ed Next doing away with comments? Guess it’s back to the days when Eduwonk wouldn’t allow comments on his arrogant blog because of the fear of “me too-ism” and generally ignorant comments from the hoi polloi. But even Eduwonk succumbed and allowed the voice of his inferiors to be heard. Sad to see Fordham and Ed Next elevating themselves to royalty and letting the little people enjoy seeing royalty play.

  4. Robert Craigen says:

    I wonder if there was a “high level of consistency” prior to the progressive education movement’s attempts to push & pull at the curriculum like a hot piece of taffy starting around 100 years ago. Seems to me that late 19th-century texts were pretty uniform in their expectations.

  5. Zeev Wurman says:

    That’s what the Committee of Ten and the SAT were trying to do, but only for kids applying to selective colleges. Voluntarily. And the expectations were quite broad rather than at the level of “thou shall teach triangle congruency using rigid motions.”

    There is nothing wrong in voluntary consistency driven by what is deemed best practices. There is something wrong when consistency in a “soft” area such as education is mandatory, and there is much more wrong when that mandatory consistency is based on ideology.

  6. sstotsky says:

    What we now have is a high level of consistency in low expectations for students in public schools, accompanied by a legal framework enacted by Congress, to make sure most students do equally poorly. That is the meaning of equity.

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