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PAUSD explains math text adoption process
Original post made
on Mar 12, 2009
Parent reaction was mixed after a Wednesday forum in Palo Alto during which members of a textbook-selection committee explained how they chose two finalists from a field of nine state-approved elementary math texts.
Read the full story here Web Link
posted Thursday, March 12, 2009, 11:30 AM
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Posted by Ze'ev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2009 at 5:35 pm
Warning: Yet another long post.
Many posters throughout the discussion mentioned that math textbook selection is not important because our teachers don't use or depend on them very much. Their implication is that teachers matter but textbooks don't.
Other posters mentioned that we have wonderful elementary teachers, although quite a few acknowledged thatwith exceptions, obviously!elementary teachers' math strength leaves something to be desired.
Finally, some mentioned that in elementary school the key is to "survive math" and the middle school or the high school simply separates those who can do math from those who can't.
I'd like to tie these three themes together, because I think they are different facets of the same issue. My discussion assumes that essentially 100% of PAUSD students, excepting those with serious mental disability, can successfully take mathematics at levels that California and PAUSD standards expect at least up to grade 9 (effectively, algebra 1 and geometry course content), and that they can do it on normal school schedule and without any particularly strenuous effort.
I cannot really prove it and that is why I call it an assumption. However, I do have some basis for it. In 1996 UCSMP translated the Japanese middle school (gr. 7-9) math curriculum by Kunihiko Kodaira to English, and there, in the preface, it says:
"The Japanese school system consists of six-year primary school, a three-year lower secondary school, and a three year upper secondary school. The first nine grades are compulsory, and enrollment is now 99.99%. According to 1990 statistics, 95.1% of age-group children are enrolled in upper secondary school, and the dropout rate is 2.2%. [...]
"Japanese Grade 7 Mathematics (New Mathematics 1) explores integers, positive and negative numbers, letters and expressions, equations, functions and proportions, plane figures, and figures in space. Chapter headings in Japanese Grade 8 Mathematics include calculating expressions, inequalities, systems of equations, linear functions, parallel lines and congruent figures, parallelograms, similar figures, and organizing data. Japanese Grade 9 Mathematics covers square roots, polynomials, quadratic equations, functions, circles, figures and measurement, and probability and statistics. The material in these three grades (lower secondary school) is compulsory for all students."
The material described in this excerpt is essentially all of U.S. algebra 1 and geometry curriculum. In other words, while I can't show a country where 100% successfully take algebra 1 in 8th grade, I can show a country where 99.99% take algebra 1 and geometry by the end of 9th grade. It's called Japan in 1990. I believe the situation is similar in Singapore and in couple of other European countries, but I have no clear evidence that I can cite for that. The point, however, is to show a proof of existence, and here it is. It CAN be done. This is the basis for my assumption, as I don't believe that our children are genetically worse than the Japanese kids in the 1990s.
Having established the possibility, we are faced with the reality that in PAUSD less than 60% take algebra 1 by grade 8, and less than 50% take geometry by grade 9. For the small number of children with weaker socioeconomic background in PAUSD, these numbers are much lower, at about 10%. And this is for Palo Alto, with its almost unparalleled parental education and income profiles, and with its per-pupil spending of about 50% over the state average.
How can we explain this? After following math education in Palo Alto, in California, and nationally and internationally since the mid-1990sand after studying mathematics education in the US and in APEC countries during my recent service with the U.S. Department of Education and participating in many public and private deliberations of the National Mathematics Advisory PanelI offer the following analysis.
Our elementary teachers are dedicated and talented professionals. At the same time they do not, as a rule, come with strong mathematical background needed for elementary mathematics. We then provide them with mediocre textbooks that are making lame efforts to instill love and appreciation of mathematics, but are largely devoid of coherent mathematics that will foster strong mathematical understanding in either teachers or students. Finally, their professional development is focused mostly on addressing the pedagogical aspects of teaching, and the mechanics of supplementing those defective materials, rather than on developing deep mathematical understanding of elementary mathematics that will help them to understand, and provide for, the needs of their students.
The consequence is the spotty record we observe in our district. Some teachers do quite well, but many don't. Some kids survive this experience anyway. Where parents can support their children (through tutors, personal help, Kumon, etc.) many additional kids overcome this and survive. Where parents cannot, few survive, and hence our achievement gap.
The situation is worse in math than in English because elementary teachers in general have more affinity with language than with mathematics, and their needs for math support through textbooks and professional development are greater. That our achievement gap in elementary math is about 50% larger than the corresponding gap in English (~105 scaled-score points versus ~70 in grades 2-6) supports this explanation.
I am not pointing fingers at our elementary teachersthey clearly do the best they can with the tools we give them. But arguing that math textbooks do not matter and that only teachers matter, and that our teachers can handle whatever we give them, is not consistent with the evidence. As I have said elsewhere, from all the math textbook series adopted for California, only the Singapore mathematics present a cohesive, focused, and complete mathematics program. It has been characterized by all that had real experience with it as one that fosters deep understanding of mathematics by both teachers and students. This is also consistent with my own experience observing its piloting in two schools in Washington, D.C., over the last couple of years. It has been successfully used by both high achieving schools like the NEST+m public New York City school for gifted and talented, as well as for challenged schools like Ramona Elementary in Los Angeles Unified, with its 80% Latino students and its more than 90% families participating in free and reduced-price lunch program.
We should stop pretending that textbooks don't count, and that all our teachers are miracle workers. Let's give our teachers the best tools we can find so they, and our children, can succeed.