Well, Shut My Mouth (Oh, Don't They Wish...)

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Year after year, Mother’s claim is reaffirmed: “Linda opens her mouth to switch feet.” I keep a plaque over my desk, hoping it will provide a ‘gentle’ reminder: “Be sure brain is in gear before engaging mouth.” In my own defense, however, the difficulties in which I generally find myself, come about because of my ability to swiftly size up many situations (i.e., ‘smell a rat’) and my eagerness to immediately announce my findings. I rarely hold my cards close to my chest. I am just not a game player, and never will be. The current expectations for Political Correctness in speech, action, and obfuscation, simply do not to mesh — in any way — with my way.

It recently happened again while I was on an out-of-state trip. Yup! — in reaction to some claims and plans that I found questionable, my mouth flew open and I asked tough questions; discussed realistic concerns; noticed those ‘if looks could kill…’ facial expressions. Since then, e-mail has been flying north and south, as one side tries to root out the truth; the other side tries to protect the position it has (erroneously, I believe,) chosen to take. I’ve done it again — just by trying to bring truth and common sense back into public schooling. “Open mouth; switch feet!”

It all began innocently enough. My real reason for the trip was to attend a conference in that area, but a reader invited me to accompany her to hear a presentation on a new math program/plan/grant at a local middle school. After teaching all day, then ‘enjoying’ nine hours of planes, trains and automobiles, I arrived to meet the reader. The next morning we went to the school. When I noted tables laden with food, dignitaries gathered from all levels — local through state — all in attendance for a one (1) hour presentation, my curiosity was piqued; my nose began to quiver.

The program began at the appointed time. State-level political and educational dignitaries; local school district representatives; university profs and department heads; were all introduced to the audience. Several persons seated at the front table then took turns at the podium — expressing their pleasure concerning, and explaining their contributions towards, receiving a $9,000,000 grant to coordinate new math curriculum and instruction within and between twelve school districts and a local university.

Since that is a goodly sum of money, I wanted to hear how it would be spent, despite the fact that I reside in another state. Chances are great that the money, or at least a large portion of it, will come from the federal taxes that are stolen from me each year.

I was also interested in hearing of the group’s plan for coordinating all math teachers, and all math materials, in all twelve school districts. In our tiny district, we have yet to coordinate materials and instruction between just two small buildings: an elementary and a middle/high school. I’m in my ninth year there, and still note the absence of progress.

I was also very eager to hear which math curriculum had been chosen.

After one hour the program was completed — with lots of applause, but no information; no closure! I could not help but question the underlying significance of a project that would bring together so many people — many having to travel great distances — then release no information as to a sensible, frugal and productive plan for wisely spending 9,000,000 of your, and my, tax dollars.

We were next invited to observe a math class, if we wished to do so; I most certainly wished to do so. I have taught at least one math class a year for my entire career; often more. I have learned what works, and I have had to work harder to make up for curriculum that didn’t. We pulled our son out of a fine Christian school after they made the decision to change to Chicago/Everyday Math. We had observed, firsthand, the harm that curriculum had done, in just one year, to our mathematically talented son. The district where I teach just ended its seven-year ‘indentured servant’ contract with the Chicago Math publishers and has wisely dug the Saxon Math books out of the storeroom. Now young, inexperienced teachers face the hugely discouraging task of trying to salvage and build upon the few, weak math skills left intact within the district. Frankly, they have little to build upon, and if the children were not already so old, I would advise those teachers to just back up and start every child over in Saxon 1.

Once in the classroom, I went over to a group of students and began asking questions, beginning with a request to see their book. The book was one that I have had to work with at my clinic…meaning that I have used my Saxon books to explain and re-teach concepts that had been poorly presented, or introduced out of any logical sequence for learning, and thus missed or misunderstood by my clients. As I looked through the book, I questioned the students. I learned that we were not being shown a ‘typical’ math class; rather an exemplary one. Students tested into that class; it was not a cross-sectional representation of the students in that building. When I asked their opinion of whether or not they thought the teacher would complete the book prior to the end of the school year, they stated that they believed that she would. When I pointed out that many teachers I know never get more than 42% of a new-new math book taught during any year, the students explained that their teacher mostly assigns the traditional practice portions of each chapter, skipping the ‘new-new math’ type assignments, which are lengthy and time-consuming. I greatly appreciated my enlightening visit with such pleasant, polite eighth graders.

Upon my return to the cafeteria, I approached one of the professors to ask which math program the university would be advising the schools to purchase and use. I could see great benefits in a coordinated mathematics plan that would prevent skill and knowledge gaps from developing, during all the school years — from kindergarten and on into university math classes. I was told that the field had been narrowed to two choices, but the person said that he could not, offhand, recall the names of those two. ($ 9,000,000 of tax revenue at stake; a festive presentation; but no recollection of math curricular choices…) Ok…might it be Chicago Math? Not sure. Might the term, “Everyday Math” ring a bell? Yes. (See: Mathematically Correct website) But at least we were getting somewhere. Finally it came out that the other choice is “Connected Math.” (See: “An Evaluation of CMP” by R. James Milgram.) Was the person quite sure? I cringed at his “yes” response. (See “An Open Letter to United States Secretary of Education, Richard Riley.”)

Another professor hurried over to join us, and his attitude was far from welcoming and barely hospitable. Actually, his arrogance and his demeaning treatment of me were very offensive. He displayed a total lack of interest in learning the truth about math instruction in K-12 classrooms. Both professors claimed that with Saxon materials there are initial gains, which then leveled off. I told them that I did not believe it, and would appreciate them sending me research done by independent (not from the big textbook publishing houses), knowledgeable and honorable educator-scholars. As though speaking to an errant child, the unpleasant professor informed me, “We will be basing our decisions upon research because we are university people and that is how things are done at the university level.” As he turned to walk away, I asked, “Sir, have you ever taught a child any math using Saxon’s materials?” He admitted that he had not. I said, “I have been teaching math with the Saxon curriculum for almost ten years, and I know that the program is efficient and effective.”

He was not interested in knowledge. Were he a true scholar, he would have eagerly taken advantage of that opportunity to learn from me; to hear my perceptions and experiences with a math curriculum that I have found to work well. Were he an objective scholar and researcher, he would have covered all of his bases, protecting not only the hundreds, maybe thousands of children who will be the victims of a $9,000,000 bust, but protecting his own credibility and career. Were I he, I would not allow my name to be included on that math project; not for love nor money. This too will crash; math scores will continue to spiral downward. At least I make my mistakes by being too honest…

This issue is not specific to any one state. These scenes play out all across America. After math scores fall into the basement, and publisher contracts run out, districts begin looking for yet another brass ring, hoping to pull themselves up and away from the bad press of low math proficiency among American school children; one with which to draw the curtain across the eyes of parents and other taxpayers. My despair comes from observing professionals worry more about the headlines, than about effective instruction for children. In the meantime, one generation after another loses; and with each ‘exciting new idea’ for math instruction, each new generation loses at exponentially faster rates.

Do us all a favor, you decision-makers in this arena of math instruction: the Saxon books probably still reside in your storerooms, where they were hastily stowed after the Professor Harold Hills of the book publishing houses landed in town. Put those solid, sensible, effective math books back in service. Show your communities that your first priority is doing what is right for children!

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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