Focusing on Process, Not Understanding, in Math

By Sean Cavanagh — November 02, 2009 1 min read
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In the wake of a recent release of uninspiring test scores and a federal study showing that states lowered their “proficiency” standards, there’s been a lot of tough and in some ways surprising analysis being put forward recently about math instruction in this country. Here’s a sample:

—In The Baltimore Sun, a college physics professor and parent says schools are rushing students through overly difficult material, rather than ensuring that they are taught rigorous math through “age-appropriate concepts and techniques.” Joseph Ganem describes his teenage daughter’s struggles with high school trigonometry material that he says is at a level appropriate for upper-level college physics students. Many students, he says, are lost when they get to college-level math because they have been fed math processes but lack a solid understanding of math. “Learning techniques without understanding them,” Ganem writes, “does no good in preparing students for college, where emphasis is on understanding, not memorization and computational prowess.”

The Des Moines Register looks beyond Iowa’s overall state scores to examine how students are faring, by achievement level, when compared to those students’ peers in other states. The paper’s editorialists are troubled by the fact that Iowa has far fewer students scoring at the “advanced” level than top-performing states, particularly Massachusetts. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also lagging behind those from more affluent backgrounds.

—A recent examination of states’ tendency to set very divergent, and in many cases very low “proficiency” standards has a lot people asking hard questions of state officials. This story in the Chicago Sun-Times about that state’s proficiency standards is one example.

—And on a different note, a new survey reveals just how lost many parents are when it comes to helping their children with math and science homework. Many mothers and fathers, it turns out, find it easier to talk about the perils of illegal drug use than about math and science content. The Orlando Sentinel sums up an Intel survey on parents’ math and science knowledge, or lack of it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.