Americans Suck At Math

This morning, as is my habit, I went through my news sources on my phone. One story in particular got my attention:

Why No One Wanted A&W’s Third-Pound Burger

The answer: Because Americans don’t understand fractions. A&W was competing with the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, and because four is greater than three, people felt that a quarter-pound burger must be larger than a third-pound one.

I’m lucky: I don’t suck at math. It was always my best subject at school, and my nearly-perfect math SAT score helped get me my college scholarships. Like anything else, part of this is likely natural ability, part of it teaching, and part of it parenting. One of the things my parents did for me when I was young is they made sure books of puzzles were around for me to discover. My favorites were the ones by Martin Gardner. What these puzzles did was force me to think differently and to find new ways to look at and to solve problems.

Most Americans were taught in school to solve problems one way. This is bad, for two reasons. First, if a student has trouble learning how to solve a problem using the method they were taught, they will think that they are bad at math, when, in actuality, they may just be bad at one method while being great at another. Second, not all problems are created equal. While one method may work well for all problems, another method may be an incredible shortcut for a certain subset. The best analogy I’ve heard is that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When taking standardized tests with a time limit, knowing shortcuts gives students an edge.

Being the father of an eight-year-old daughter, I see the debates over Common Core and standardized testing on social media very often. They reactions are very emotional, very passionate, and, unfortunately, often quite misguided on all sides. Here’s my opinion of what works, what doesn’t, and where we could improve.

Common Core math is, as I see it, an attempt to put my self-teaching via Mr. Gardner’s books into textbook form. We’ve all seen online examples of “bad” Common Core math problems:

CoreExample

The problem with this is that the assumption is that Common Core is only teaching the “new” way, and that the problem selected was specifically chosen to pick a problem that was easy to solve using the “old” way and a time-waster solving it the “new” way. The truth is that Common Core teaches multiple methods of problem solving. Different methods work better for different students and for different types of problems. What Common Core tries to do is fill students’ toolboxes with lots of tools instead of just handing them all hammers.

Where Common Core has failed is in marketing. They changed things without adequately explaining it to parents. I will admit that I don’t know how this could have or should have been done better. One possibility is to add some content to the textbooks to explain why certain methods are being taught. Show examples of where those methods work really well. Maybe offer some night classes to teach these methods to parents who weren’t that good in math so that they understand and can help teach their kids.

tnready-test-logo

A group of parents at my daughter’s school organized an opting out from Tennessee’s new standardized testing program. They had many excellent reasons for doing so, and I joined them by opting out Zari. The computer-based testing was deeply flawed, to the extent that the system crashed statewide during the first day of testing. The test also had other problems, such as needing to teach third-grade students how to type, spending time–wasting time, as it turns out–testing the stability of the system, and the nearly 50% increase in testing time over the previous year. All of these were valid concerns…but they weren’t my concerns.

I am a poster child for standardized testing. I have benefited tremendously because I am an exceptional test taker, and I am confident that Zari will also perform exceptionally on standardized tests. As such, deciding to pull her from the testing was not a decision I made lightly. Frankly, she wanted to take the test.

The reason I pulled her was that the testing methodology is deeply flawed.

Time for a diversion…

A few years ago I noticed I was having memory problems, so I went through a battery of tests to diagnose and figure out a treatment. (Problem solved, by the way.) One of the tests was a brain scan.

24249_343791466942_4328568_n

This is my brain. I have 270 pictures from this scan in a folder on my Facebook account. The reason for this is that I’ve had a concussion–I foolishly made a trust fall–and in the event I suffer another head injury, I want the doctors to be able to be able to access my previous scan so that they have something for comparison. Where brain injuries are concerned, diagnosis is often much more difficult without a baseline.

End of diversion.

My biggest problem with TNReady is that there’s no baseline. Completely made-up examples:

Downtown Elementary School – 3rd Grade End-of-Year – 62%

Suburbia Elementary School – 3rd Grade End-of-Year – 81%

Happyville Magnet School – 3rd Grade End-of-Year – 87%

Looking at these scores, we can see that the best school is Happyville, followed by Suburbia, with Downtown being a failing school. Obviously they have great teachers at Happyville and Suburbia and washouts teaching at Downtown. However, you’re missing a big part of the picture:

Downtown Elementary School – 3rd Grade Start-of-Year – 27%

Suburbia Elementary School – 3rd Grade Start-of-Year – 78%

Happyville Magnet School – 3rd Grade Start-of-Year – 75%

By setting a baseline with Start-of-Year testing, we can see that the teachers at Downtown did an incredible job teaching their kids, while the kids at Suburbia barely improved at all. (One other advantage of Start-of-Year testing is that it would also give an indicator for how much students retained from the previous school year.) By having tests at the start and end of each school year, we now have the data needed to truly measure how well students, teachers, schools, and districts perform. Without Start-of-Year testing, all we see are data points without trends.

There’s your Saturday school posting. Enjoy your weekend. I’ll be back tomorrow with another fun-filled post.

Thanks for reading!

Topher

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