Self-Tracking in Palo Alto

by Robert Pondiscio
June 22nd, 2009

A stunning 60% of parents in Palo Alto, California supplement their children’s math education through private tutors, extra workbooks and other means, “mostly because they feel Palo Alto classes aren’t challenging enough,” according to results of a district survey cited in the San Jose Mercury News.

The district conducted an online survey of about 1,200 elementary school parents, and will compare its results with another survey taken next spring, after students have spent a year learning the district’s new Everyday Mathematics curriculum. During the debates over the controversial Everyday Math program, adopted as the district’s new curriculum in April, many parents said Everyday Math is confusing and doesn’t teach basic math skills. Parents frequently said they would have to supplement their children’s math education.

Nearly 63 percent of parents surveyed said their children don’t need extra help in math.  However nearly six in ten said they provide extra math work anyway to challenge their kids.  Palo Alto is the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, where engineers and scientists are legion.  “They have a low-expectation math program in a community where there are high expectations for math,” one former school board member tells the paper.

I can’t help but view this through the lens of the spirited, ongoing tracking discussion prompted by Will Fitzhugh’s piece on “athletic tracking.”  Granted, what’s happening in Palo Alto is about a poorly received curriculum, but it’s driven by the perception kids aren’t being challenged enough.  It’s useful to be reminded that parents of more advantaged children will go to great lengths to make sure their kids excel.   One has to wonder how poorer potential high achievers without access to tutors or even advanced classes (if we insist on mixed ability classrooms) will possibly compete with the likes of these Palo Alto whiz kids. 

Or maybe we’re OK with that?

Renegade Parents Teach Math! (Teachers Too.)

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2008

Uh-oh…the secret’s out.  If you want your child to do well in math, teach ‘em long division at the kitchen table after school.   Traditional formulas have been supplanted, the Associated Press has discovered (long after the horse has departed the barn) by concept-based curricula aiming to “teach the ideas behind mathematics.”  This is leading “renegade parents” to teach basic math formulas on the sly at home. 

Renegade teachers too, as Matthew Clavel described in a terrific piece in City Journal some time back:

If school officials knew how far my lessons would deviate from the school district-mandated math program in the months ahead, they probably would have fired me on the spot. But boy, did my kids need a fresh approach….Not one of my students knew his or her times tables, and few had mastered even the most basic operations; knowledge of multiplication and division was abysmal. Perhaps you think I shouldn’t have rejected a course of learning without giving it a full year (my school had only recently hired me as a 23-year-old Teach for America corps member). But what would you do, if you discovered that none of your fourth graders could correctly tell you the answer to four times eight?

You’d teach them the algorithms, like Clavel did, I did, and countless others.  The idea that teaching for understanding precludes automatic recall and traditional methods of instruction–that children haven’t learned unless they ”construct” their understanding of math–is one of those mindless orthodoxies that have squeezed out common sense and strewn failure in its wake.   Watch a 4th or 5th grader struggle with partial sums addition and lattice multiplication and you’d quickly revert to time drills and memorization too. 

If I run into one of my 5th graders even 20 years from now, I will ask him or her, “Do you know how to divide?”  I’d bet my rent money I’ll get the answer, “Does McDonalds Sell Cheese Burgers?”  Sue me.  Take away my teaching license.  But I’ll bet they can divide.