Education

Briefly Stated: June 12, 2024

June 11, 2024 9 min read
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Teachers Are Divided Evenly on Best Way to Teach Math

What are the odds? Forty-nine percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders believe students learn math best through procedures rather than solving big problems. And 52 percent don’t.

That division has surfaced in an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted this spring.

Teaching math, at least in part, by having students solve real-world problems is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, California recently adopted a controversial framework that embraces the approach.

Even experts who prefer one approach over the other say aspects of both are necessary to help students understand math.

Although the debate over the two approaches has been dubbed the “math wars,” “I don’t think it needs to be as polarizing of a choice,” said Zack Hill, a math curriculum writer and education consultant.

“I lean more toward a constructivist approach,” sometimes referred to as problem-solving, Hill said. “But I also understand that there are certain things that ... children will not intuit,” such as expanded form, a way of writing numbers to see the math value of individual digits. “They’re not going to come up with that term on their own. There are certain things that we need to teach kids explicitly. I think for me what it’s about [is] giving them the time and the space to reason around it.”

In the Renton district near Seattle, Janaki Nagarajan also prefers teaching math from a problem-solving perspective. But she doesn’t believe teachers should limit themselves to just one approach.

Even when educators prioritize problem-solving, “there’s obviously instruction that involves teaching kids how to multiply,” she said.

But she sees a difference between learning basic procedures “in a way that’s just like, ‘Here, you need to know this, but I’m not going to explain to you what this is or why this makes sense or how it’s connected to anything,’ ” and instead telling students, “ ‘Here’s what multiplication is, how do we use it? How do we apply it to things?’ ”

Nagarajan’s district sets aside time for students to play “fluency games” that allow them to practice using particular math concepts in an engaging way.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re not giving them the building blocks,’ ” she said. Instead, “you’re giving them in ways that kids are interested in.”

S.C. Withholds State Approval of AP Course, But Schools May Attempt to Offer It on Their Own

Advanced Placement African American Studies didn’t make the state-approved list in South Carolina, but schools can still offer it this fall—and reap some benefits for students—if they can prove to the College Board that the instruction meets college-level standards.

The state agency also rejected AP Precalculus, according to a memo sent to superintendents on June 4, but didn’t specify why. The course wasn’t approved for its official launch in 2023-24, either, according to the College Board.

The two new courses from the College Board aim to attract a more diverse student body to AP courses—through which students can acquire college credit in high school. Yet, efforts to ensure access to these courses have hit roadblocks. African American Studies faced a tumultuous rollout for its 2023 pilot. Florida state officials banned the course, claiming it defied state legislation restricting how race can be taught. That same year, Arkansas officials said the course wouldn’t count toward state graduation requirements.

Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina are among 17 states that—through legislation or other means—have restricted how race can be taught in K-12 schools.

South Carolina did not reveal whether either of the courses will count toward graduation credits.

“We regret that students and educators won’t receive the full benefits provided by the state as with other AP courses,” says a statement from the College Board.

In the memo to superintendents, South Carolina officials said districts could continue to offer AP African American Studies as a “locally approved honors course.”

As a result, the College Board said it will “authorize South Carolina schools’ African American studies classes as an AP course if those courses meet college-level standards as verified by the AP program. Schools could mark those courses as Advanced Placement on student transcripts that can be sent to colleges and universities. Students earning qualifying scores on the AP exam would be eligible for college credit.”

The state did not clarify what South Carolina schools could do regarding AP Precalculus.

Federal Judge Overturns New Hampshire Law Forbidding the Teaching of ‘Divisive Concepts’

A federal judge has struck down a New Hampshire law that bars the teaching of “divisive concepts,” such as that one individual’s race is superior to others or that any person is inherently racist.

U.S. District Judge Paul J. Barbadoro said the law is impermissibly vague and in violation of the First Amendment because it does not provide fair notice to teachers as to what they may not teach, does not explain when classroom discussion of a forbidden topic crosses the line into impermissible teaching, and does not make clear when teacher speech outside the classroom violates the law.

The judge, who referred to the 2021 law as four amendments to the state’s education and anti-discrimination laws, said the measures “force teachers to guess as to which diversity efforts can be touted and which must be repudiated, gambling with their careers in the process.”

Violations of the provisions could lead to teachers having their credentials revoked and expose them to civil liability, the judge said. “Although teachers do not face criminal penalties for teaching a banned concept, it is difficult to conceive of more serious consequences that could befall a person in a civil proceeding than those that a teacher might face if they are found to have done something that the amendments prohibit,” Barbadoro said.

The New Hampshire measure is one of more than a dozen around the nation seeking to limit teaching about race. Legal challenges to similar laws are pending in Florida and Oklahoma, while a measure in Arizona was blocked by state courts in 2021 and later repealed.

The law identified four concepts that students may not be “taught, instructed, inculcated, or compelled to express belief in, or support for.” One banned concept was that a person, by virtue of any of those characteristics, was “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Another was that any individual should be discriminated against by virtue of the covered characteristics. And another was that people of any covered characteristic cannot and should not treat others without regard to such characteristics.

The provisions were challenged in separate lawsuits by teachers and the state affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Young Kids Are Struggling to Grasp Fine Motor Skills

Remember the age-old admonition, no running with scissors? Well, youngsters these days are struggling with how to use scissors, period, along with crayons, pencils, and pens. Tying their shoes also seems to be a problem, as is following instructions and sharing.

Those are the findings of a recent Education Week survey of teachers. Big majorities of Pre-K-3 teachers reported those fine motor skills and social-emotional capabilities were more, or much more, challenging for children this school year than they were for kids of the same age five years ago. Experts say this is likely in part a function of the upheaval caused by the pandemic, but even students who weren’t in grade school during the height of school closures are still experiencing the lingering effects.

Social-emotional skills—listening and following directions and sharing, cooperating with others, and taking turns—topped the list of the tasks that children today are having more trouble with than their peers five years ago.

There are several potential reasons why young students’ social and fine motor skills are lagging, said Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Preschool and kindergarten enrollment declined during the height of the pandemic. Even if children were enrolled in 2020 or 2021, they might have experienced remote instead of in-person learning.

That means students who are in early elementary grades now likely missed out on learning how to interact with their peers in a classroom setting, Barnett said.

Another possible reason is that young children’s screen time has increased. Research has shown that screen time shortens attention spans and leads to difficulty focusing. Children’s reliance on screens might mean they’re going on fewer play dates or spending less time using crayons or scissors, Barnett added.

Parents, Students Pressure Teachers to Change Grades

Teachers give students the grades they believe they deserve—then comes the pressure to change them.

About 4 in 10 teachers report receiving pressure in the past year from parents and students to change grades, and more than a quarter say they’ve received pressure from their principals, according to an Education Week survey. Only 20 percent of teachers say district leaders have exerted pressure related to grades.

More affluent parents are more likely to exert that pressure, raising concerns about equity and fairness in student grades.

More than half of teachers in schools where less than 25 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch said they receive “some” or “a lot” of pressure from parents to change grades—compared with a third of teachers in schools where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Once a teacher starts to feel any sort of pressure, that’s when we start to see inequitable things happening for students,” said Sarah Morris, a former teacher who studied grading practices while earning a Ph.D. in education policy.

More affluent parents “have the luxury to complain,” she said. “They have the time to complain, to email their child’s teacher.”

School leaders were less likely to say they or other leaders at their school had placed pressure on teachers to change grades—86 percent said they’ve exerted “none” or “very little,” compared to 74 percent of teachers who said the same about their principals.

Teachers might take even minor comments from their principals about grades as a form of pressure, since it’s coming from their boss, said Susan Brookhart, an education professor emerita at Duquesne University who has studied grading debates for decades.

Principals were also more likely than teachers to say that parents exerted pressure to change their children’s grades. That might be because parents often go directly to principals to complain about grades, Morris said. “I feel like principals do a really good job of blocking a lot of heat from our teachers these days.”

Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Ileana Najarro, Staff Writer; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Madeline Will, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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