Monday, March 29, 2010

On the Math Standards

Jason wrote a great post on the K-5 math standards, over at Number Warrior. My response:
I haven’t been willing to comment on these, because it’s just too big for me to wrap my head around. And I’m convinced that different kids need to do their learning on different timetables.
But I like what you’ve given me here.

I don't like the idea of standards. People I respect do. I feel strongly that we need to find our own solutions, locally, to our problems. Good ideas can spread online. I want students and teachers to have more power over their own classroom lives (extreme democracy).

Also, even if we think of the standards as guidelines, there are so many places where disagreement will happen - where perhaps no one has the One Right Answer. Jason points out the multiplication-as-repeated-addition controversy, but there are plenty of others.

Today I noticed one topic I'd move earlier (if I were writing the standard guidelines) and another I'd move later. We focus too much on 'addition facts' and 'multiplication facts', when kids might learn those much more easily if we waited a few more years (a la Benezet). If you are working on your multiplication facts, Maria D pointed out an interesting video some kids might like.

On the other hand, if you're having fun, why not introduce some of the squirrely topics earlier, so kids get lots of playful exposure before they have to worry about all the complexities? On Living Math Forum, someone asked about resources for negative numbers. My favorite was the card game Denise has on her blog. (I sent both these links along to the teachers at my son's school, and they get to decide for themselves whether to use them, and with which kids.)

Writing good standards would require:
1-Treating them as guidelines, not rules,
2- A clearer understanding of child development than most people have,
3- A deep understanding of mathematics, including a deep understanding of elementary mathematics, and how it's learned.

After 20 plus years of teaching, I'm still not ready for that challenge. I don't think many people are, regardless of whether they claim to be.

Teachers who have the freedom to make their own curricular decisions might find some good thoughts on what kids are ready for at different ages in Patricia Kenschaft's book, Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math, Even If You Don't.

Looking forward to reading other people's thoughts on all this...


  1. I wrote yesterday on Jose Vilson's blog:

    "there is a huge difference between “how can we help these kids?” and “how can we help these kids reach the standards?” and I submit that one of these questions is noble and the other is monstrous."

    I am convinced. Convinced. that bad standards distort teaching horribly, and that I haven't seen anything that looks remotely close to good standards. I doubt such a thing can exist.

    And then I read some of your explanation for why they (good standards) are unlikely.

    And, though I am coming at them from a different angle, I agree:

    I don't like the idea of standards, either.


  2. Interesting post. I've always thought broad national standards for language arts and social studies could be a good thing (benchmarks that would allow for local interpretation), but I wonder if it would be different in math. Should there be different methods of standard writing in different content areas?

  3. RE, could you give me an example of a standard you'd like to see?

  4. SAT and PSAT were good to me.
    but that was a long time ago
    in, you should forgive the phrase,
    a kinder, gentler, nation. also
    you could just put your thumb
    out and get a ride and the cops
    wouldn't mind and when i
    needed new glasses medicaid
    stepped right up and all sorts
    of stuff like that. the propaganda
    machine won't admit there are
    punishments for those that fail;
    there can only be *rewards* for
    those who *win*. moreover,
    *everybody* can win in theory
    so it's their own damn fault
    if they weren't born rich.
    kinda thing. the big pretense
    is always that rewards will
    be allotted in something
    resembling a fair way; if you
    *won't* go along with this,
    good luck getting heard
    above the person-to-person
    at all anywhere for all i can see.

  5. Do you mean one of the broad standards I'm thinking about my content area? For social studies, it might be something like this were I doing a history unit on the industrial revolution:

    Analyze the emergence and effects of the Industrial Revolution.

    or, even more broadly:

    Analyze the effects of the interactions between humans and the environment.

    Because there are so many different specifics one might cover in a world history course, creating rigorous broad standards that teachers can use to cover the specifics they want is what I think allows teachers to do what they do best. However, I think the success of such broad standards would rely on quality educators.

    My point above was that I'm not sure such a broad type of standard could apply in every subject area. Am I making sense?

  6. @RE, sure, you're making sense. If we think standards are a sensible idea, then they may have to be set up differently in different subjects.

    I'm tempted to agree with JD that standards are likely to be monstrous. On the other hand, an educator I greatly admire (she doesn't blog, unfortunately) thinks something is needed so kids who move from place to place can have a reasonable classroom experience.

    Who would come, if we did an online conversation about this? Maria D knows how to set that sort of thing up. I'd love to hear this issue knocked around some.

  7. Agreed - I'd love to participate.


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