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Teaching Opinion

Where Has All the Knowledge Gone?

By Jo Boaler — October 03, 2008 5 min read
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Barack Obama recently claimed in a speech to the National Education Association that “the most valuable skill” anybody can sell is knowledge, but that schools are failing children—particularly when it comes to math and science. Students in the United States score lower on math and science tests in the 12th grade than those in almost any other developed country in the world. But there is a reason for the sorry state of math education that is not due to schools or teachers, but to the dangerous suppression of research knowledge about ways to teach math well.

There is a movement at work across America that smothers research knowledge, gives misleading data to parents, and substantially undermines our ability to improve American children’s mathematical understanding.

BRIC ARCHIVE

I came into contact with this anti-knowledge movement a number of years ago, when I was a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. The setting was a local school that had changed the math approach it used for years with poor results, to one that engaged students more actively in their math learning. The newer approach was not particularly controversial—students were still learning formal rules and methods, but instead of just practicing them, they were given complex problems to solve that involved using and applying the methods they were learning. The school’s results started to improve and more students were choosing math when the school became a target of the anti-knowledge movement.

Campaigners held secret meetings with parents, feeding them incorrect information. They phoned a range of colleges and asked them, “Would you accept a student if he or she had not taken any math in high school, just talked about math?” Many of the colleges said no, and the campaigners formed a list of them that they then delivered to parents. They told the parents that their children would not be eligible for college if they continued with the problem-solving approach to math. Stanford, one of the universities on the list, later had to write to the school saying that this was untrue. Unfortunately, the damage had been done.

Critics are smothering research, misleading parents, and undermining children's progress.

The campaigners then moved on to students, trailing after them at break times, pressuring them to sign a petition to end the math program. By the time the teachers learned about the campaign, it was all over. The campaigners had convinced the parents and the school board that teachers would have to go back to their old methods. Now, desks at the school are in rows, teachers lecture, and the problem-solving that students loved has gone. The teachers at the school were demoralized and defeated. One of them, an inspirational veteran of 20 years, left the profession.

The movement that attacked this school in California continues to make its way across the United States. Its tactics include threatening the faculty of research universities, telling them not to publish the results of their research studies, and filing complaints against legitimate studies in efforts to suppress their publication. The most troublesome aspect of this movement is not that it campaigns against nontraditional teaching—everyone has the right to express contrary views on teaching methods—but that it works to suppress research knowledge about good teaching that could help the United States move forward. The campaign is also well funded and powerful—indeed, its influence may have extended to the White House.

In April 2006, President Bush announced that a panel of experts would conduct a review of research into the effectiveness of different mathematics approaches. The formation of a “national math panel’’ seemed positive, but the Bush administration told the group it could only consult research that used randomized controlled trials. This caused a serious problem, simply because educational researchers rarely ever use such experiments.

Randomized controlled trials are expensive, and they pose problems for teachers, many of whom are unwilling to treat children as experimental subjects. Instead, education researchers typically conduct “natural experiments,” which compare teaching approaches not by sorting children into control and experimental groups and then applying “treatments,” but by finding schools that use different approaches and studying their effectiveness.

A number of these experiments have been conducted; they have provided consistent and important evidence, and have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Yet the math panel was forced to ignore all of them and search instead for randomized trials. Consequently, in the critical section of its report investigating the differences between teaching approaches, the panel found only eight studies to consult. All of these had followed students only for a small number of days, and most of the researchers had found, unsurprisingly, that the different approaches had made no impact.

The authors of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s report sensibly concluded that their eight studies could not offer clear evidence on the effectiveness of different teaching approaches. (“Panel Calls for Systematic, Basic Approach to Math,” March 19, 2008.) This was an innocuous result, but the administration’s instruction to ignore most of the existing research was suspiciously similar to the tactics of the anti-knowledge movement.

Is this just a coincidence? Can President Bush really have been so badly advised as to ignore almost all of the research that could have informed the report, or was there something more deliberate at work? How acceptable is it for a government to control the forms of knowledge that are released to the public?

It is vitally important that the new occupant of the White House be aware of the anti-knowledge campaigns to suppress research knowledge across America, and that he and his advisers find their way through to the important knowledge that already has been produced on effective mathematics teaching. As Sen. Obama claimed, knowledge is America’s most valuable asset; it is also the greatest hope that we have for halting low and declining math achievement and pursuing a mathematically literate society.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Where Has All the Knowledge Gone?

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