Thursday, September 14, 2006

Huge math news rocks edusphere -- It's back to basics!

The math-curriculum pendulum has just made a mighty swing back to basics, thanks to a new report issued by the US-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

The changes the NCTM recommends for the K-12 math curriculum -- its first overhaul of its influential math standards in 17 years --can only be described as seismic. Among its conclusions, according to the New York Times:
At a time when most states call for dozens of math topics to be addressed in each grade, the new report sets forth just three basic skills for each level. In fourth grade, for example, the report recommends that the curriculum should center on the “quick recall” of multiplication and division, the area of two-dimensional shapes and an understanding of decimals.
The report's aftershocks are shaking educational journalism already. Read about the issue (and the potential implications) in these excellent places:
  • Kitchen Table Math's take on the report -- with chunks of a Wall Street Journal article that you can read in full at WSJ-online for a fee. The ladies also include great links on Singapore Math, a program that closely resembles many of the NCTM's new recommendations.
  • Ken De Rosa's sharp analysis of the news at his blog, D-Ed Reckoning. So hot, it sizzles.
Educators (and parents) who thought the state of math instruction in the United States was catastrophically flawed are breathing a little easier today. (I'm one of them -- still recovering from the fuzzy, "cutting-edge" discovery math of my sixth-grade experience. Somehow learning to divide using piles of macaroni just doesn't cut it when you reach higher levels of math. Now I pay the price, watching worthlessly while my 8th-grader struggles to master algebra.)

And lest anyone think this is all "just school stuff," check out's take on the OECD's annual report this week on education. While it doesn't mention math, specifically, the report concludes that :
The U.S. spent about $12,000 per student, second only to Switzerland among the 30 OECD countries based on 2003 figures....[but] outperformed only five of the 30 countries on an OECD test given to 15-year-olds, ranked 12th in high school completion rates and averaged 23 students per class, higher than the average of 21.
And who can forget the 2003 TIMSS study, which ranked the United States number 12 in 4th-grade math performance, behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and a host of others? A glutton for punishment? Have a look at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) analysis of math achievement in the lower grades:

The study, “Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA,” focused on students in the United States and 11 other industrial countries that participated in all three assessments: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the Russian Federation.

U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades. (From the AIR news release on the study.)

The new NCTM math standards can only be good news for students -- and a wake up call for educators.

UPDATE: Here's the feedback on the new NCTM report from Chester Finn, Jr., (the Education Gadfly) and his compatriots at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute:
[W]e salute NCTM's newfound wisdom in this matter. Now, we pray, states (and textbook publishers, test builders, etc.) that slavishly follow NCTM's lead will revise their own standards and instructional materials, thus gradually reintroducing common sense--and math competence--into American schools. (From the Education Gadfly)
UPDATE 2: Joanne Jacobs reports on NCTM's executive director, who claims that the new guidelines don't represent a change in philosophy. A true Kool-Aid moment -- but sadly, probably also a portent of how difficult changing curriculums will be.


At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Marie said...

I agree. Students really need to be taught the basics. Teachers can't just breeze through them in order to quickly move to more complex topics. I wish the times tables were drilled into me because I still need my calculator for basic multiplication and I am in college. I think this change will be very good and I am excited to see it implemented in the years to come.

At 8:24 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Hi Marie! Thanks so much for your comment. I'm a hundred percent with you. The question now is "will the changes be implemented, and how quickly?" Change is hard. Let's hope schools are on the case faster than the speed of slight.

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Cheryl, you too!


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