Math Classic Returns

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

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Author and satirist Ambrose Bierce once said, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.” Bierce’s pithy words were written almost 100 years ago, but they could just as easily speak to the pedagogical ignorance rampant in our public schools.

Time after time, our feel-good, faddish government education system blithely abandons proven teaching practices for the “pedagogy du jour.” When fads fail – and they invariably do – educators “discover” what others have known all along: namely, that learning requires hard work, lots of it.

Across the nation, this reality is finally taking root in the minds of educators. After more than a decade of modernized “fuzzy” math, the pendulum is swinging back to the basics. An article published this week in The New York Times highlights the “new” push for the “old” standards in math. Such a move comes on the heels of a September report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics advocating a greater concentration on basic math skills. The fact that American students perform abysmally on international math tests is also eroding the resolve of fuzzy math proponents.

Interestingly, fuzzy math grew out of recommendations from this same National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. Views expressed in that report encouraged children to “explore” their own solutions, write and draw pictures about math, and use calculators frequently – a far cry from the rote memorization and drills required to master rudimentary math facts.

But while star-crossed bureaucrats misled unsuspecting children into creative and pictorial problem-solving, one math educator was busy making a difference. Jaime Escalante, subject of the 1988 movie, Stand and Deliver, revolutionized math for his disadvantaged students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Set in 1982, Stand and Deliver details the year 18 of Escalante’s poor, minority students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. So incredulous was the education establishment, Escalante’s students were asked to retake the exam on suspicion of cheating.

Hollywood’s version of reality certainly raised Escalante’s profile, turning him into a teaching icon overnight – a well-deserved accolade. Yet the movie did a grave disservice to teachers everywhere. The film ignored the 10 years of strategy and painstaking hard work that enabled Escalante and his poor students to defy the odds and perform at high achievement levels. Escalante’s success was a product of careful planning, not a flash in the pan moment of excellence. Escalante was highly involved in every aspect of his math program, even down to handpicking the teacher who taught math feeder courses. Clearly, Escalante understood the importance of methodical preparation in readying students for the rigors of calculus.

But like Hollywood, the education establishment turned a blind eye to the lessons learned from Escalante’s hard work, choosing to revel only in his success. An article in Reason on Escalante’s program puts it this way: Pedagogues were “like physicians getting excited about a colleague who can cure cancer without wanting to know how to replicate the cure.” The sad coda to this story is that Escalante’s exceptional math program did not survive his departure from the school.

What can we learn from Escalante’s hard-won experience and our flirtation with fuzzy math? Nothing “new,” I’m afraid. As the founders of the successful KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools would say, “there are no shortcuts” when it comes to academic success. Learning is hard work – always has been, always will be. But we’ve known this all along, right?

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Educational Alliance. Check out the “Headlines” section of our home page, updated daily with articles from every major newspaper in the state. At the Alliance, we are committed to keeping you informed and empowered as we join together to improve education for the children of North Carolina.