Math blame, from general to the specific

This article by David Staples in the Edmonton Journal, about dropping math test scores here in Alberta has kicked up some dust locally. Everyone is pointing to something called Discovery Math, which I don’t know much about, and trying to figure out who to blame for implementing it 20 years ago. As Staples explains;

Many math professors and teachers blame the failing results on the pervasive influence of a new style of teaching math, known as “constructivism” or “discovery math.”

Across western Canada for the past 20 years, the memorization of times tables and the teaching and diligent practice of standard arithmetic has been downplayed. Indeed, the conventional style of teaching math has been derided by discovery math advocates as “rote learning” and “drill and kill.”

Instead, elementary school teachers have been required to guide children as they explore multiple strategies to attempt simple math problems.

“The first discovery-based curriculum was attempted with the Western Canadian and Northern Protocol 95-96 curriculum,” says University of Winnipeg math professor Anna Stokke. “The later (2006) curriculum that our students use now was a doubling down.”

First observation; can a teaching method that is 20-years-old be referred to “new”? Second, this phrase, “doubling down,” makes it sound like something ugly or deceptive was at work, as in, they knew they were promoting a failure but doubled down in the hope that miracle would save their skins. Maybe I read it that way because of my experience; these education policy discussions can get nasty.

Reading the article and the comments below it brought back old memories. Years ago, in the late 1990s, when I was working for Alberta Report newsmagazine, I was assigned the education beat. I had no idea why. Maybe no one else wanted it and since I was the junior joe in the office… Or maybe my boss just hated me. I wasn’t sure. Back then, the big education issue in Alberta—or at least for the readers of Alberta Report—was charter schools. I mean, how many people give a hoot about these esoteric education issues, I asked (rhetorically) the reporter sitting at the desk beside mine. His answer surprised me. He said that while it was true that not many readers are interested in the education beat, those who were interested paid very close attention indeed. Every sentence I’d write in that section, he cautioned, would be parsed and discussed among passionate, even fanatical, followers of educational issues. And he was right. After a few weeks on the beat, I began to get phone calls from people who would bawl me out because I hadn’t included this or that data point in some piece or questioning my slant. Some would actually drive half way across the province to confront me with pages and pages of numbers that proved almost conclusively that this or that area of public education was failing, and badly.

btw another thing my colleague in the newsroom told me was that very soon (after taking over the education beat) I would learn to hate the ATA (Alberta Teacher’s Association), the provincial body that functioned as both the teacher’s union and as the teachers’ professional governing body. My predecessor on the education beat, Mike Jenkinson, who had just moved on to work for the Edmonton Sun, had developed real animosity for the ATA and carried that with him as he became the head editorial writer. The ATA leadership seemed to hate the whole of Alberta Report, and the whole of Alberta Report appeared to hate it back. This mutual disgust dated back to magazine’s beginning. Ted Byfield, founder of Alberta Report, had moved to Alberta originally to start a branch of a religious school he had founded in Manitoba. Ted’s motivation for starting these schools was a belief that public education was going off the rails. He started the magazine as a side project for that school.

Upper level, professional educators—those who run teachers’ unions and head the faculties of education at universities in North America—tend to hate upstarts trampling on their turf, and they hate Christians. Byfield was both. I mention all this simply because the ATA and Byfield pop up in what follows.

The Staples article got me thinking. Discovery Math sounded familiar, but I honestly couldn’t remember whether I had written about it, or whether it had perhaps appeared in an Alberta Report column by Byfield or his son Link, then the publisher of the magazine.

As it turns out, my memory wasn’t too bad. Discovery Math was mentioned in Alberta Report four times, and all around the time that I was covering education. But it wasn’t me writing about, nor the Byfields. All references to Discovery Math were by a guy named Nathan M. Greenfield, a guest columnist, who is described in magazine as a teacher of “English at Algonquin College, Nepean, Ont., and is Canadian correspondent for the Times Educational Supplement of London.”

What’s interesting about these Greenfield’s references is how completely dismissive he is of Discovery Math. You get the sense that it was already at that time widely regarded as a colossal failure.

Here are those references (bolding mine);

Yet another ‘right’
Alberta Report. 26.31 (Aug. 16, 1999): p23.

What is surprising–and most disturbing–is Mr. Justice Halvorson’s assertion that “Modern educators take the child centred approach that each child has an equal right to develop self-esteem.” This amounts to a juridical endorsement of the pedagogical nostrums that have visited such disasters as whole language reading and discovery math on students across the land.

Childish delusions
Alberta Report. 26.46 (Jan. 24, 2000): p58.

The business community may cheer [Kay Hymowitz’s] attack on the follies of progressive education; she does an especially satisfying demolition job on “discovery math.”

Fanatics never change
Alberta Report. 27.1 (May 8, 2000): p57.

With education faculties themselves now staffed by people nurtured in Discovery Math, Creative Spelling and Co-operative Learning, where can we find “teachers of teachers” who might wince at the motto displayed in a State University of New York classroom: “We Choose to Feel Special and Worthwhile No Matter What”? Or, to put it more plainly still, understand the “principal” (sic) behind the various uses of the apostrophe, or know that “biest” (sic) is, well, an “emenly” (sic) bad spelling of “biased”?

A century of perverse doctrine
Alberta Report. 27.15 (Dec. 4, 2000): p65.

In her detailed account of American education, Diane Ravitch, undersecretary of education in the Bush administration, effectively backgrounds the Canadian “progressivism” manifested in such unhappy ventures as “new math,” “discovery math” and “self-esteem programs.” The only Canadian she actually mentions is Professor Frank Smith of the University of Victoria– but what a splendid choice! With Professor Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona, Frank Smith is the actual originator of the “whole language” method of teaching children to read, the most quintessentially Deweyist of any “child-centred” educational scheme yet devised.

There are other mentions of Discovery Math, of course, in other publications, but not that many. A Feb. 28, 1992 Globe and Mail column—”FIFTH COLUMN EDUCATION: The way we teach math, says Andrew Nikiforuk, just doesn’t add up”—blames Discovery Math and “spirally designed textbooks” for falling test scores in Ontario, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

There’s an article in the Los Angeles Magazine by Robert Ito, “Less Than Zero—Will L.A. Unified School District Dump the Controversial “New New Math” (44.12 [Dec. 1999]: p52.) which takes a whack at all “discovery learning.”

While looking into all of this I discovered a few other interesting things. First, I was surprised to learn that Ted Byfield, 88-years-old, is still writing; he has his own blog and is as stridently critical of public education as ever. You’ll find a few entries bashing the ATA, as well as public education in general and minister of education. Here’s a sample from Feb. 13 this year, “18,000 sign protest against math program. So what, replies the gov’t

Next, I found that the recent spate of criticism of Discovery Math dates back to around 2013/2014. Here’s an article from the Globe and Mail, Jan. 24, 2014: “Provinces stick with ‘discovery math’ despite back-to-basics push” which suggests that Quebec does better in math because some teachers push a back-to-basics memorization method of teaching math despite being told otherwise.

As per the blame game, in the Edmonton Sun, Oct. 7, 2016 article: “Plenty of blame to go around as Alberta provincial math exam scores continue to slide” we get the surprising news that diversity (as in “diversity is our strength”) is allotted some of the blame;

At a board meeting to release district-level results, Edmonton Catholic Schools superintendent Joan Carr said maintaining exam scores is hard work as classrooms become more diverse. Five years ago, 13 per cent of the district’s students were English language learners. This year, that number is 23 per cent.

Trustee Cindy Olsen said the board should continue to lobby for more provincial funding to work more intensively to help newcomers learn the language.

I’m truly surprised to discover that diversity isn’t our strength; but funding is.

Speaking of blame, while googling (and binging and duck-ducking) around, I came across this article from the ATA News Vol. 31, 1996-1997; “Western Canadian Protocol: Ensuring a bright future for math education in Alberta.” When I saw that link, I thought, ah-ha!, the old nemesis, I wonder if they share any blame in this? The author, Wendy McGrath, writes glowingly about the Western Canadian Protocol, which includes Discovery Math, and the support it has in Alberta Education, as laid out by Hugh Sanders, program manager, Secondary Mathematics of the Curriculum Standards Branch. Sanders, so it seems, was a big supporter of discovery education;

Currently, the Curriculum Standards Branch, Alberta Education, is working with post-secondary institutions to gain acceptance of the Protocol. According to Hugh Sanders, program manager, Secondary Mathematics of the Curriculum Standards Branch, the math Protocol emphasizes and stresses the importance of a conceptual understanding of math. Sanders feels that students are better served when they are taught the how’s and why’s of things, rather than simply being taught to memorize facts. According to Sanders, the intent of the Protocol is to find a better balance between technology and traditional learning methods to produce better mathematical skills. He does not limit this belief to mathematics and asserts that problem solving abilities, like those learned in mathematics, apply to all realms of daily life.

Goals of the Western Canadian Math Protocol

Sanders notes two principal expectations of the Protocol: a lower failure rate and high standards. To achieve these goals, Sanders cites the need to establish clear guidelines for parents, teachers and the public with respect to what is expected from students at the end of a given year. He notes the need for reasonable standards for students and points to the role of both government and Alberta Education in establishing these standards. According to Sanders, the more strongly teachers and parents support standards, the more students will strive to meet these standards. The protocol establishes a new set of desired outcomes grade-by-grade and course-by-course. It identifies four strands in the K to 12 program, moving beyond standard mathematical exercise of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And while Sanders admits the importance of basics (“We want students to understand why 3 x 5 = 15”), he notes that the key to learning is understanding, not memorization. “Memorizing without content is not going to help us in problem solving,” he adds.

There you have it. Dropping math test scores in Alberta can be  blamed in the past on Hugh Sanders and Alberta Education, and in the present on diversity. Blame game? Now we’re getting somewhere.

P.S. You know, thinking about it, I don’t even know what that last quote from Hugh Sanders means. When you memorize something, the “something” that you memorize is content, isn’t it? In other words, the act of memorization includes content; you can’t memorize without content… amirite? “Memorizing without content is not going to help us in problem solving.” Blah blah blah How ’bout the ol’ switcharoo; “Content without memorization is not going to help us in solving problems.” I like that. I like it a lot. “Content without memorization…” I think I should promote my new educational theory. First, I need to apply for some strength, I mean diversity, I mean funding.