The great math and reading experiment
[30 Mar 2006]
I remember when I first started my mathematics teaching career, one of my supervisors said in a meeting of teaching staff:
You are all English teachers.
This was a defining moment for me. Since then, and after a lot of thinking about it, I felt that every educational situation is about much more than the immediate content. Many mathematics students struggle with word problems – partly because of reading deficiencies. All mathematics students struggle with why they are doing algebra, or calculus, or trigonometry.
Hey, teacher – whadda we gotta do this stuff for?
The report from the NY Times Schools Cut back Subjects to Push Reading and Math is disturbing. Sure – the math and reading scores of students in the US are below international levels. And sure there is a major problem and Bush’s No Child left Behind is trying to address it. But to reduce all other subjects so that a student’s day consists of 2 hours of math, 2 hours of English, 2 hours of gym and one hour for all of the remainder, is not the way.
This is a great example of assessment driving everything. Most state governments in the US administer standardised testing for math and reading only. And schools are punished if their scores are low. So the result is – the institutions concentrate on the scores above all else.
But wait a minute. Surely if the student is taking history, geography, music, whatever, he is required to read? If the student is taking science or economics, surely she has to do mathematics? Education’s biggest problem is that things are taught in isolation. No-one sees the connections – often the teaching staff don’t even know where their part fits in the whole curriculum.
In the NY Times article, historian David McCullough says:
…because of the law, “history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading.”
Hey America, your young people really, really need to study history and geography – and many other things besides.
This narrowing of curriculum means the No Child Left Behind law may increase a few test scores, but severely limit educational outcomes.