by Carla Albers
The Wall Street Journal
January 7, 2005
Thank you for Sharon Begley's column titled "The Best Ways to Make Schoolchildren Learn? We Just Don't Know." I have been intimately involved with "discovery" learning versus direct instruction for a couple of years now as my children's elementary school utilized a discovery based, or constructivist, math program. The program's introductory family letter stated that "children will play games rather than doing tedious drills", children will "develop their own procedures and algorithms", etc. Discovery based math programs do not emphasize mastery and fluency in basic arithmetic operations, something the experts will tell you is the single best predictor for success in higher level mathematics. The U.S. Department of Education has perpetuated this problem by identifying, in 1999, 10 recommended/exemplary math programs which follow the discovery learning model. These texts are premised on NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) standards which encourage early calculator use, decry rote memorization, decry teacher directed instruction and which instead call for cooperative learning (kids teaching kids). Within a month of the DOE publishing this list of programs, over 200 leading mathematicians/scientists/physicists signed an open letter published in the Washington Post, asking then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley to withdraw DOE recommendation of these programs. The DOE did nothing, and as was reported in this paper on December 12, 2004 ("Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math"), math scores continue to worsen. Although some argue that poor math performance is tied to poor teacher training, many experts have written about the need for math curricula which teaches, and expects, fluency in basic arithmetic operations. If we hope to see improvement in math achievement, curricular content and philosophy needs to be part of the conversation.
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
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