2004-05-07 / Columnists

School Scope

By Norman Scott
Mathematically Declined

By Norman Scott
Mathematically Declined

Teachers at Thomas Jefferson HS in the late 50’s and early 60’s used to tell us it was a shame they couldn’t teach us more interesting material because they had to spend so much time preparing us for the Regents. With all the controversy over standardized testing, we should remind ourselves that some things never change. Standardized testing leads to standardized teaching.

My high school teachers may have found it necessary to teach the same material to all Regents classes, but at least they seemed to come up with their own individual methods of presentation. Mr. Epstein taught geometry differently than other teachers. I loved Mr. Epstein because he gave me a great grade based solely on my mark on the Regents exam even though my average was significantly lower. Here was a standardized test success story.

I started thinking about those days in high school math after a recent conversation with a math teacher at a high school in Region 5. Things are very different in the high school math world these days. Kids no longer take algebra in the 9th grade, geometry in the 10th, trig and intermediate algebra in the 11th, and so on. Over the years the courses morphed into something called Sequential Math where all the various categories of mathematics were jumbled together. The most recent version is MATHA and MATHB (three Regents Exams, each covering one year of material, were replaced by two Regents Exams, each covering one-and-a-half years of material. Slower tracks offer Math A and Math B as two-year sequences.) Our teacher friend complains that since the old system was abandoned, teachers are forced to jump from topic to topic instead of being able to focus on one area. To this hodge-podge, topics I never saw in high school were added: statistics and probability. Apparently, the decision makers at the state and city level were absent when their own teachers covered logic because the logic of what they are doing is highly illogical.

Most high school math courses that made any attempt at remediation were eliminated a few years ago. Courses like Consumer Math, which taught math that people actually could use, like balancing a checkbook, are no longer taught. Quick! What’s the cosine of a bounced check? Sorry, all this math talk must be confusing me.

Eliminating remedial courses would be fine if kids came into high school on grade level. But do I have to tell you that the overwhelming majority of students are just a wee bit behind? Don’t know your times tables? Don’t worry about it, kid. We’re doing trigonometry today. Supposedly, 85% of the students at this Region 5 school fit that category and could use a serious dose of 7th & 8th grade review.

I asked a high school math teacher in another region what they do at his school and he said they try to get the kids to use calculators to do the basic arithmetic needed to do algebra and trig. But the process frustrates everyone. Teachers aren’t allowed to teach basic remediation. Have you tried canceling out algebraic equations without knowing arithmetic and having to rely on a calculator? I was an elementary school teacher so I may not know what I’m talking about and would appreciate someone telling me how this all makes sense. (The most difficult math I taught was division of fractions and I barely understand why you invert the denominator.) This whole process is like putting a roof on a house before the walls are up. Kaboom!

And Kaboom is certainly what we are seeing. Teachers are being told they have to get with the standardized curriculum. "Okay, that’s not a totally outrageous request," we figure. "There are regents to pass." Read the italics in a tone as if the words emanate from the Gods at Tweed or the demi-gods in Region 5 HQ:

No, No, you don’t get it. It’s not about what you teach but how you teach. You can’t teach a lesson with the kids sitting in rows. They have to be in groups. You only need 5-10 minutes to teach the concept and about 5 more minutes to give instruction to the children, who will then spend 20 minutes working with each other in groups. Make sure to use manipulative. (Whew! Anyone see a block fly by?) That way they can learn from each other while you facilitate. Then you just bring them together for a 5-minute summary at the end of the period. And Voila! Solved quadratic equations! Simple. "But none of that is important for the regent exam," we think. We don’t care. We’d much rather have the children get a 28 on the regent this way than get a perfect score of 85 teaching your old silly way.

And, a 28 they will get. Not to worry. That 28 will be miraculously transformed into a 55 passing grade (darn, passing was 65 in the 60’s) and suddenly the school will go from a 14% pass rate to a 75% pass rate in just 6 months. That is what happened at this teacher’s school. You see! Grouping students really works.

My correspondent raises some fundamental questions. This grouping business looks nice for the 15% of the kids who have a certain level of knowledge to share with the people in their groups. But the struggling kids, who just happen to be the ones he is teaching, are not getting too much from the group work and a lot of time is being wasted in the process. Too bad, get with the program. Here’s 20 hours of retraining. Now go do it. Or else!

His supervisors began to observe him and they don’t like what they see, which surprises him after many years of satisfactory observations. His lessons are too teacher directed, they say. My Mr. Epstein would be under attack too since all his lessons were teacher directed and I still managed to get a 98 on the geometry Regents. I probably would have gotten those 2 extra points if I had been in a group.

"What are other teachers doing," I ask? Apparently, when it comes time to be observed, they do a dog and pony show, but basically still teach the old way when not observed. The administration knows all this and is making use of the New Order to go after certain people. There are hints of age discrimination, something we hear from around the city — that administrators will earn brownie points if they can drive as many older teachers out of teaching as they can. And maybe knock out a higher salary in the process. Is anyone surprised? I talk to other teachers at the school who tell me there are at least half a dozen teachers who have gotten unfair Unsatisfactory observations. The administration at this particular school is especially vicious. Hey, this is Region 5, isn’t it?

I go back to my source in the other Region. His administrators are not as rigid. The math teachers were told they could ignore the directives and put the kids in rows and use teacher directed lessons, accompanied by appropriate student participation, as long as they fake it for observations. Recently, they were told to get rid of the rows and have the kids face each other all period long, so that when a bigwig walks by it will look like the kids are learning in groups.

Ah! I finally get it. If you can’t, or won’t, do the dog and pony bit and can’t put on a good show, you are a poor teacher. I have an idea. Let’s recruit the next generation of teachers from Actors Equity.

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