My recent posting on homeschooling led to an interesting exchange on teaching math . . . so I thought I’d post a recent article about math education, from the Stanford University publication Education Next.
I’ve blogged about Duke professor Jacob Vigdor’s research before. His basic thesis is that efforts to expand enrollment in higher math – surely an admirable goal – coupled with a push to teach algebra earlier to all students, have led schools to dumb down math curriculum and have undermined the progress of America’s most gifted math students.
Concern about our students’ math achievement is nothing new, and debates about the mathematical training of our nation’s youth date back a century or more. In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the “new math” movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students. While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off. Even promised improvements in the lower part of the distribution have at times proved elusive, a point illustrated below by the disappointing results of a recent initiative to accelerate algebra instruction in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.
America’s lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students. Recently published results from policies such as Chicago’s “double dose” of algebra, which groups students homogeneously and increases instructional time for lower-skilled math students (see “A Double Dose of Algebra,” research, Winter 2013), support differentiation as the best way to promote higher achievement among all students.
What follows is a data-rich analysis of American students’ math performance. (I’ve inserted a couple of graphs from the article here.) Professor Vigdor’s bottom line is that pushing early algebra hurts struggling students while subjecting mathematically-talented students to courses that fail to challenge them or prepare them for more advanced work. Basically, this is the old argument for math tracking, combined for a plug for longer and more intensive math classes for students at the lower end of the curve. But since I’m a paleo-teacher, old doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
What do you think?