Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Students learn by being taught

“How do you feel about putting students in AP classes for the exposure, even if they don't have the skills to succeed?”

I feel it’s a really stupid idea. It’s good to challenge students and have them reach beyond their comfort zone. But if they don’t have the skills to succeed in a class, why would we put them in the class? Unfortunately, this is policy in many public schools. Students supposedly benefit from “exposure” to material that’s way over their head. It’s thought to be OK if they don’t pass the class or even take the exams. I’ve been told several times: “They’ll learn just by being there.”

But what do they learn?

Administrators with an overabundance of training in education theory keep making perfectly obvious things murky. They claim, for example, that placing ill-prepared students in advanced math classes is helpful. They say it’s about “equity” and “opportunity.” It’s about “challenging” them. It’s "good" for their self-esteem. The policy also can make money for the schools, look good on spreadsheets and serve to mask the nature of what’s really going on in the classrooms.

But behind the mask, there is devastation.

Young children enjoy math and science. In America, this enthusiasm gets squished right out of many of them. By 4th grade, they’ve changed their minds forever. I place the blame squarely on reform mathematics. Reform math curricula deemphasize traditional algorithms; instead, students learn multiple “alternate” ways to solve problems. And “discovery” teaching models have them working in groups or pairs to teach concepts to each other.

“Traditional methods don’t work anymore,” parents are told. “Our kids need 21st-century skills.”
(Personally, I think that phrase is code for “Our kids need TI84 calculators.”)

Traditional math does work – every time. It helped build America. It doesn’t have a shelf life where it might curdle or grow moldy. It’s needed as much in the 21st century as it was in the 14th century. It isn’t one of “many acceptable alternatives.” For most students, it’s the best, most efficient, most effective method for learning mathematics. It’s necessary in college, businesses, trades, and STEM careers. It should be emphasized – taught first and then practiced. Yet, thanks to reform, most public-school children don’t become proficient in the arithmetic skills that are critical to their future.

When these children struggle in math, they might be given TI calculators to take the place of arithmetic. Instead of practicing skills, they might get lessons in how to pass standardized tests. When they’re bored, they might get extra sheets of busy work. When they’re frustrated, they might be sent into the hallway where they can’t bother anyone. Some are delivered, nicely wrapped, to behavioral or special education groups. And regardless of what anyone learns, nearly all will go to the next grade in the fall.

This is called “social promotion,” best defined in this way: “Students can fail the entire grade, learn less than nothing, actually fall farther behind than where they began, basically become mindless amoebas just taking up desk space and annoying their classmates and teachers – and they’ll still be passed to the next grade so that room can be made for the next class.”

Social promotion could work if students received tutoring or remedial help over the summer, but the vast majority is neglected entirely. The next fall, many are tagged – either with a “behavioral” or “special ed” tag, or perhaps just with a roll of the eyes, an averted gaze, and a “You won’t believe the class I have this year!” These kids continue to lurk in hallways, “special” classes and detention. They’re expected to work cooperatively with classmates to reinvent thousands of years of math – on their fingers, and with molding clay and pipe cleaners. Day, after day, after day. Plop on the forehead. Plop on the forehead… drip… drip…drip…

Since students have no training in special education or child psychology, and they lack the “professional development” teachers get, they fail to see how all of this is good for them. By 4th grade, they begin to tune out.

“I hate math,” I’ve heard 9-year-olds say. “I’m no good in math.” “My Dad can’t understand this.” “I can’t wait for recess.”

In middle school, there is usually more reform math. Behavior problems are blamed on society, “free will,” short attention spans, video games, parents, hormones or a sense of entitlement.
(I have heard all of these.)

When they get to high school, students are encouraged to take honors math and Advanced Placement math classes. The entire point of AP classes is to earn college credit while still in high school. Most universities and colleges won’t give credit for AP math classes unless students pass AP exams with a score of 3 or better. But high school students are encouraged to take AP classes even if they lack the requisite math skills.

“Let them eat cake,” administrators tell parents. No, I’m just being silly. Parents are told, “Students learn just by being there.”

As the students flounder in these classes, whatever bare shreds of dignity and self-esteem they have left are battered to death by a daily pounding of material that’s over their head. Their worst fears are realized: “Maybe I’m really not capable in math,” they fret. “Geez. Maybe I am stupid.”

A few struggle through the classes, thus fueling the administrator view that the policy works. Most sink into apathy or outright rebellion. In Spokane, 808 more AP exams were flunked in 2008 than in 2000. These flunkings don’t take into account the AP students who didn’t take AP exams or the AP students who dropped out of school altogether. (Currently, up to a third of our students will drop out before graduation.)

After they’re sufficiently tortured, high school seniors are eventually allowed to graduate without requisite math and science knowledge because retaining them isn’t “fair” to them.
(As if graduating them without the necessary skills is fair to them.)

In college, most want to run as far and as fast as they can from mathematics, but they need some form of college math to get a degree. Up to 95% test into remedial math. Many require remediation in arithmetic.

The bad news continues. College math classes go fast. There is little time to practice. Some students have to take remedial classes more than once in order to pass. As they struggle, give up, or drop out – they’re blamed yet again. I watched students drop like flies from a remedial algebra class, and the instructor explained it this way: “Students just don’t want to learn.”

Instead of becoming the engineers, mathematicians, scientists and tech specialists this country desperately needs, these students head into other fields that don’t require a whole lot of math classes. Like education.

And thus, the circle is complete – a betrayal of trust from elementary school all the way through college. Think how much these students could have learned, had they been in the right class with the right material and an efficient teaching approach.

Doesn’t it make you angry?

There are a few specks of sanity out there, but not many. Most students don’t have access to the specks. They’re pushed, prodded, poked, analyzed, assessed and – ultimately – blamed. Many give up, tune out, and move beyond our reach forever.

What to do about it? Well, here’s the good news. The easiest, most productive thing we can do to fix remediation rates, dropout rates, enrollment drops, and the entire “math problem” is to just start teaching the children properly. It’s easy. “Obvious,” you could say. But the education establishment is – for the most part – unwilling. Proponents of reform mathematics and discovery teaching models appear determined to believe in them, despite all contrary evidence – until they die. Parents must do it then – find a way to provide their children with the needed math skills.

Math doesn’t have to be torturous. It isn’t scary or bad; it’s logical and interesting. It’s a helpful tool. Taught properly – directly, with a logical progression of skills and time for practice – most of the children will learn it.

And I promise you – they’ll take it from there.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (June, 2009). "Students learn by being taught." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 25, 2009, at at

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