Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Everybody’s bummed out over how bad U.S. kids did in an international math test comparison. There’s an insightful interview about it from National Public Radio at:


The expert interviewed basically blames dumbed-down math curriculum for this problem, and of course, he’s right. We HAVE to get our schools back to paper-and-pencil computation in those early grades, and dump most of those boneheaded manipulatives and wacky new new new new gnu math techniques. In later grade school and secondary schools, we HAVE to go back to training the kids’ minds to do the math and handle the abstractions and the thinking . . . instead of just punching their calculators. That’s literally all some kids can do.

But here’s one aspect the experts might not have considered: teachers with lousy language skills are lousy math teachers, and schools with lousy language instruction make math class even harder for kids . . . and that’s a huge part of this problem, too.

Example: an Omaha father of three boys just sent this lament to me. His seventh-grader still can’t sound out unfamiliar words or spell very well at all, because their highly-funded west Omaha school district does not teach kids to read and write with simple phonics in the early grades. You know, left to right, top to bottom, attack each letter of an unfamiliar word and sound it out. . . .

Therefore, when he looks at an equation in math class, he has trouble breaking it down into its individual parts . . . because he never learned to break down words the way he should have been taught. So he can’t ‘’read’’ equations, either.

Also, the instructions on his homework and tests are so badly written, he often misunderstands what he is supposed to do.

The other night, he came to his dad with 15 math problems on a worksheet. The instructions directed: ‘’Evaluate these equations.’’

He is in seventh grade, and he didn’t know what ‘’evaluate’’ meant, in this context.

Can you blame him? I mean, what DO they mean, ‘’evaluate’’ –do they mean, is the type font pretty? Evaluate whether these are hard questions? What are your chances of getting them all right?

Noooooo. They MEANT ‘’solve’’ the equations.

I am certain there is nothing wrong with the brains of American kids, that they should be falling so far behind kids in other countries. I really don’t think it’s necessarily bad math teachers, either. Every math teacher I’ve ever met is trying his or her best.

I do, however, believe it’s bad math curriculum and bad communication that are combining to create this crisis.

If I were Queen, the first thing I’d do is put nothing but phonics in kindergarten through second grade, and get rid of all Whole Language folderol. Next, I'd throw out all the math textbooks in this state except those from Saxon Publishing (www.saxonpub.com). It’s exactly what kids need, K-12, and it’s a crying shame more parents and taxpayers don’t know about it so that they’d demand it in our schools.

The next thing I’d do is fire all the curriculum figureheads who’ve been backing all that crummy, dumbed-down, ‘’rainforest’’ math we’ve been subjecting our kids to for so long. Out! Out with you!

Last, but not least, I’d do away with teachers’ colleges and simply have teachers who’ve majored in content areas get jobs in schools. The hours they’re now wasting in ‘’how to teach’’ courses that plug rotten stuff like whole math and fancy jargon like ‘’evaluating’’ equations would be much better invested in communication courses to help them learn how to read, write, spell and think so they can pass those skills on to the students.

If we did those simple things, we’d be world-beaters again. Here’s hoping it’ll all add up for the powers that be some day soon.

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