Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

The ‘Unasked Questions’ Found From Story on Math Panel’s Report

April 22, 2008 2 min read

To the Editor:

“The qualities of an effective mathematics teacher,” according to your front-page summary of findings from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s recent report, are “frustratingly elusive” (“Essential Qualities of Math Teaching Remain Unknown,” April 2, 2008). Must teachers be certified in order to “teach well”? Does it matter how many math courses they took in college? Even more elusive, however, is the answer to a question your article—and possibly the federal panel—doesn’t bother to ask: What does it mean to talk about “teaching well” or being “effective”?

The only hints we’re given are occasional references in the article to students’ “achievement.” But this just sets the question back a step, leading us to ask, What kind of achievement and how is it assessed? My fear is that this concept—and, by extension, the teaching that’s supposed to produce it—is simply equated with high test scores.

Yet, as a group of Michigan State University experts put it in the Review of Research in Education, “many scholars have argued that standardized achievement tests represent a severely limited view of what mathematics is worth knowing,” with “too much emphasis on isolated computational skill” and the mindless application of memorized algorithms, with “little or nothing to assess students’ ability to comprehend mathematical reasoning.”

The question “What tends to be true of teachers whose students get high scores on standardized math tests?” is much less important than the question “What tends to be true of teachers whose students understand mathematical ideas from the inside out and can apply them to new types of problems?” In any case, these are certainly two very different questions, and they’d likely produce two different sets of answers. (While we’re at it, here’s a third question: “What tends to be true of teachers whose students develop a lasting interest in math?”)

Reports, and articles about reports, that ignore these differences are not only frustrating but ominous, because the default assumption is that higher test scores ought to be our primary goal as educators. In fact, this is true not only of reports but also of studies whose primary dependent variable is standardized-test results, rather than more meaningful kinds of learning.

Nor is this limited to the field of mathematics. Whenever we read a discussion of whether a given policy leads to “better” outcomes—for example, more “effective” classroom management or more “successful” schools—we should demand to know how these words are being used, and whether those meanings capture what matters most about education. Not to ask is to be complicit in perpetuating the most disturbing features of the status quo.

Alfie Kohn

Belmont, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as The ‘Unasked Questions’ Found From Story on Math Panel’s Report

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read