Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How much math do kids need? How do we get them there?

It is embarrassing to say this, but our school missed its AYP target for math last year. Our present seniors took the state test last spring, and as a group, absolutely bombed it. Although many of us frequently bash "No Child Left Behind", I can see why others support it, because our school has been scrambling to fix the problem ever since we got the news. That's a good thing. Nevertheless, it has raised a couple of questions in my mind, and I promise they are not loaded questions. I'm honestly curious about what others think about these things.

One of the things our school has done, and in fact the decision had been made before we even got the test results, was to increase our math requirements for our high school kids. We used to require two years for kids in grades 9-12. We have now increased that to three years, and kids are required to take at least Algebra I. We have also added a geometry class to our curriculum. After we got the depressing results of last spring's test, we had a faculty meeting, and discussed doing more than that. Since the state test includes Algebra II, which includes some geometry and trigonometry, it was suggested that we should require that. But finally one teacher asked this question: "If kids aren't planning on going into engineering or some other math related field, how much math are they really going to need?" I think that's a fair question.

That question came up again, but in a different way, in my classroom recently. We had finished our American history stuff one day, and there were about five minutes left in the class period, so a girl in the back of the room raised her hand and asked me, "Mr. Fermoyle, are you good at math." I answered that I was. After all, I took all the math classes that I could when I was in high school, I aced my college algebra class while tutoring other students, and I am frequently able to figure out simple math problems in my head that others need calculators to solve. So I walked back and looked at a problem in her geometry book. I told her that I took geometry back when I was in tenth grade, so I no longer had any clue how to figure out problems like the one she was showing me. A student sitting next to her sarcastically said, "Isn't it great to know that this will have real practical value in our lives?"

I know that there is concern about the fact that other nations like China and India are producing more engineers than we are. I know that there are a lot of fields that require understanding of a high level of math, and I also understand that there may be a lot of kids who will end up needing more math than they think they will when they are sixteen-years-old. After all, we have had students who have gone to college who ended up having to take remedial math classes because they hadn't taken enough math at our high school. Nevertheless, I will ask this heretical question. Is it possible that we are pushing too much math on a lot of kids who will never use it?

Regardless of how much math, or anything else, that kids need, I wonder what is the best way to get them there. Right now, our principal, the teachers in the math department, and everyone else in the school for that matter are very concerned, and we are coming up with every idea we can so that our kids will do better on that test next spring. As I said earlier, that's a good thing, but I don't know if any of the kids, who will be taking the test for us, really care. As it is now, the tests our kids take to determine whether or not we're a failing school don't matter to them at all. According to the people who monitored our math test last year, there were a lot of kids who obviously made no effort on it at all. Now, why am I uncomfortable with that?

My understanding is that in a couple of years, the math test our kids take to determine the status of our school will also count toward their graduation. That should definitely help bring about a better effort by them when they take that test, but I wonder if that one test will motivate kids to do the work and the studying necessary to perform well on that test.

One thing that has always struck many teachers on our staff is the fact that nearly all of our kids, no matter how badly they do in their regular classes, manage to pass the written test that they have to pass in order to get their driving permits. There is no question about it--our high school kids want to be able to drive. I can't help but wonder what would happen if we tied getting a drivers license at sixteen-years-old to overall school performance. If their performance in school is too poor, make them wait until they're eighteen to get their licenses. I know there would be problems involving things like kids with learning disabilities, but it seems to me that we could probably work those problems out.

I really have no problem with our school being accountable for the job we do teaching our kids. But if that is going to be based on our kids' performance and learning--and I don't know what else you can base it on--I would like to make sure that their own performance and learning matters to the kids, too.


Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Let's face it-- there are algebra people, and geometry people. But I think you use algebra more in real life.

Happy Thanksgiving, Dennis!

11/23/2006 8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, good analysis...

11/23/2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Ajay, and happy thanksgiving right back at you, Ms. Cornelius!

11/23/2006 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. As a math/Spanish teacher of 15 years in public schools, I know we can make things better.
May I offer another topic for you? Memory skills for our kids.
I believe schools could do a better job teaching our kids how to store and recall all types of information.
Please visit my website for more information.
Thanks and keep up the good work.

11/25/2006 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just called you Ajay by mistake.
My apologies.

11/25/2006 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are not able to do college level math, you will be shut out of many careers. In high school, kids should keep their options open, and for that reason, should be encouraged to take as much math as they can handle.

Maybe the kids find high school math challenging because they didn't get a solid foundation in elementary school and middle school. The constructivist math curricula are awful for those kids who aren't "naturals" at math.

11/26/2006 7:17 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"Is it possible that we are pushing too much math on a lot of kids who will never use it?"

I believe we ARE pushing "too much" math on kids who won't use it. And, at the same time, we aren't focusing on math enough.

I don't think the problem is quantity, but quality. Kids who don't know how to do long division get moved along to algebra. Then, not fully understanding algebra, they get moved to an incomplete understanding of geometry and then trigonometry in order to try to get the "advanced" ones to calc 1 and 2 by the time they're in 11th grade. And the students forget everything they've learned. Math does proceed from topic to topic, and you can't just move kids to the next topic before they've mastered the previous one. I'm sure there's relation even in history, Dennis, where learning European history is important to understanding American history. However, it applies quite unforgivingly in math.

I agree with anonymous above that a lack of understanding can lead to being shut out of careers, and math is needed to do a great many jobs well. I think, however, what this means is that students should be expected to have an excellent base.

And to resolve another implied question, the kids almost certainly don't care. I was, in fact, recently speaking the the parent of a third grader whose teacher has focused on doing well on the state math test. He was annoyed -- the state math test only helps the school, not the kids.

"count toward their graduation": an ambiguous phrase, one that tells nothing of value in whether it will be actually meaningful to the kids. Sounds a bit like it will have a lousy implementation to me.

I think it's a really good idea to link DL's to school performance. It would eventually face legal challenges -- significant ones that would be likely to lead to it being declared unconstitutional. I think it would still be worthwhile to get it enacted. If it were a highly successful policy, it would foster other similar legislation which could be upheld.

11/27/2006 8:15 AM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

Dennis, several questions.

Which curriculum i.e. text books do your feeder schools use? I suspect that many of your students have poor basic math skills.. and I would be willing to bet that there is some new math in pipeline... calculators instead of memorizing... etc.

I would be careful about using the "we will never need this" argument... There is precious little that any student will need directly in college and work. An engineer might not ever need to use his history, biology and social studies knowledge. An editor might never need to use math. Our High School system is there to provide a well rounded education system... for the same reason that colleges have general ed requirements. Besides, learning math skills teachs logical reasoning... which is something that everyone can benefit from.

p.s. how have you been doing?

12/01/2006 6:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Being a product of the American Public school system, and now a member of the community college alumni with a grand Associates of Science degree, I can tell you that when I reached 24 and finally decided to stick to math, that the world finally made a hell of a lot more sense.

Having been through Special Ed programs for one year and then home-schooled for a while before returning to a real school setting, I feel as if I got jacked not getting a chance to take higher level math courses.

I am now a freelance web developer (a great job!) and I use math, or at least the principles of higher level math everyday in my work. It is sad that kids are not shown the true applications of math at a younger age, because maybe if they were introduced to it earlier on in life ... then there wouldn't be so many questions and so much fighting about doing homework problems.

I mean, I know I really felt gipped because I was definitely capable of doing more and understanding more at a younger age, however my home environment left a lot to be desired so I struggled.

If it is concepts that are taught and then the application which are applied, then maybe our younger students wouldn't be failing more of their subjects. It is my opinion that kids without any sort of grounding in these subjects are going to be the future welfare moms and dads. I was a welfare kid, and it is not fun.

8/20/2009 2:35 PM  

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