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The Shame of the Schools’

In response to:

The Shame of the Schools from the April 7, 2005 issue

The following letter was written to Roger Shattuck concerning his article “The Shame of the Schools” in the April 7, 2005, issue of The New York Review:

I enjoyed your article of several months ago (in The New York Review of Books) regarding school curricula. I agree with almost everything you wrote, but I believe that there are some issues that are specific to mathematics which also warrant serious consideration. I’m a mathematician who has been intimately involved in K–12 education at the district, state, and national levels for over fifteen years—in developing programs for practicing and prospective teachers, writing curricula, and writing both college-level and middle-grades textbooks. Some of the concerns which I believe are unique to mathematics (and to some extent science) are described below.

First, the vast majority of teachers, particularly at the first-through-eighth-grade levels, are woefully unprepared to teach the mathematics which this generation of students will need to function successfully in their adult lives. National and international research, as well as the collective experience of hundreds of university mathematicians and mathematics education faculty who work with them, agree that most teachers’ knowledge of mathematics is disconnected and shallow, and, for the most part, limited to isolated computation. They have no number sense, no spatial sense, no measurement skills, no understanding of how to interpret data, and, most importantly, they are unable to communicate mathematical ideas and processes clearly and correctly to their students. It is this pervasive lack of content knowledge which sets mathematics apart from the other academic disciplines in K–12 classrooms.

NONE OF THIS IS IN ANY WAY A CRITICISM OF TEACHERS. It is a condemnation of the system which acts as if algebra and trig in college, and four or five days of “neat activities” in in-service workshops, is all that elementary and middle school teachers need.

International research has consistently shown that most Asian, and many European, students outperform their American counterparts by a wide margin in mathematics. One of the factors which is generally considered as a reason for this disparity is the nature of textbooks in countries whose students excel in mathematics. These texts are language-intensive and well written. They focus on applying mathematical understanding in real situations, and they constitute a coherent curriculum which builds each year on previous learning (rather than repeating the same material year after year because students never learn anything permanently). Such texts broaden and deepen teachers‘ understanding of mathematics, and improve their own language skills, as they prepare their lessons.

So why aren’t such texts being used in this country? Because in most school districts, decisions about curricula and books are made by the same teachers who are in such desperate need of fundamental mathematical understanding; and they continue to select texts which are in their comfort zone—750 pages of brightly colored, disconnected trivia and computational drill which require no reading comprehension, no thinking, no real applications, and no permanent understanding.

I’m familiar with Professor Hirsh’s work, and I agree with his general philosophy; but I have some serious concerns about his mathematics curriculum. I have developed a K-through-sixth-grade curriculum, and a series of textbooks based on it. The curriculum has been implemented in about two hundred schools over the past five years, with remarkable student results on Loui-siana’s NEAP-type mandated tests, and with overwhelming support from teachers and administrators.

I am enclosing a copy of the curriculum, and I would welcome your comments.

Patricia Jones

Arnaudville, Louisiana

Roger Shattuck replies:

My competence does not include the area of mathematics education. I welcome Professor Jones’s comments on the vagueness of most curricula, on the inadequacy of teacher preparation, and on the low quality of textbooks in K–12 math.

Professor Jones’s own comprehensive K–6 broadside curriculum Deep Math merits careful examination and evaluation. She can be reached at 269 Notre Reve Lane, Arnaudville, Louisiana 70512.

To the Editors:

Roger Shattuck’s experience of the school standards movement [“The Shame of the Schools,” NYR, April 7] is exactly my own, first as a teacher in Vermont when this enthusiasm for bureaucratic intervention got started in the 1970s, then later as a Vermont school administrator, and now as a Vermont school board member. Shattuck observes:

Here lies the great pedagogical short-circuit and break-down, brought on by the empty promises and dummy documents called “standards.” Without a specific curriculum, there can be no standards.

If Shattuck were right, this situation would be an Emperor’s New Clothes farce, enacted not just in Vermont but also across the nation in the big states from which Vermont borrowed these techniques for school improvement (a borrowing presumably based on the dramatic advances in education these states have recorded over the past twenty years).

Fortunately for all of us, Shattuck must be wrong in his analysis; otherwise we would be awash in a sea of protest from the education presidents and governors, not to mention all the university presidents, professors of education, and education executives who attend each year the conferences on educational leadership.

But thankfully, Shattuck is a lone voice. The nation’s leaders are solidly on board with the standards thing. All is right with the world. If anything were wrong, we’d surely have been told.

Bruce E. Buxton

Headmaster, Falmouth Academy

Falmouth, Massachusetts

Roger Shattuck replies:

I read the first sentence of Mr. Buxton’s letter as a confused comparison of his career in education with mine. The end of his second paragraph must be ironic.

The crux of his letter lies elsewhere. Mr. Buxton states that if I were right in declaring, “Without a specific curriculum, there can be no standards,” then we would be facing a farcical Emperor’s New Clothes situation nationwide. Precisely. We are. The new clothes of the standards movement have not improved the guidance of a specific curriculum but eliminated it.

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