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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Issue is NOT Algebra 2—The Issue is First-Grade Math

A novelist writing for Harpers believes students should not be required to study Algebra 2. The fact that students "are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can't understand." is not an argument against Algebra 2. It is an argument against the ineffective math foundations instruction occurring in the primary grades.

I mentor two first-year teachers. One just gave her second graders a page of double-digit subtraction with regrouping, and all of them scored 100%. She concluded her students already "understand" subtraction. I replied, "The only thing you learned from that is they all memorized the step-by-step blind procedure and can execute it. You have no idea if they actually understand the math." We often teach non-math shortcuts and call it math. As an article from the New Yorker points out, "These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether."

Our school system continually tells students who are successful with non-math that they are good at math, and then wonder why these same students struggle with real math. The situation is even worse for students who never mastered the blind procedures in the first place.

Our biggest problem is that our elementary math teachers understand only non-math themselves, as Liping Ma documented in her now famous book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. A review of the literature shows that our elementary teachers lack what Ms. Ma calls “a profound understanding of mathematical foundations.” The first step needs to be the development of skilled math teachers at the critical elementary level.