Monday, August 27, 2007

How good is your child's math program?

How to Evaluate Your Child's Math Program
By Linda Strean, Managing Editor, GreatSchools

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has spelled out three math "focal points" for children in each grade, from kindergarten through eighth. Fennell said the council developed this short list because state standards vary widely and some of them include more than a hundred objectives for each grade. While the NCTM wrote these focal points for teachers and other educators, the list also offer parents a way to understand what their children should be focusing on.

"If my child is in Grade 6, I know a focus will be fractions," says Fennell. "That will take up more time than, say, adding whole numbers, which he should know how to do by now."

W. Stephen Wilson is a Johns Hopkins math professor who teaches freshman calculus and is a former senior advisor for mathematics in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. He also reviewed the states' K-12 math standards for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and he has strong opinions about which offer the best guidance. He called California's math standards "the gold standard." Wilson recommends that parents who want to make sure their students are getting prepared for high school and college compare the topics in their students' textbooks to the California standards.

"Odds are, if you can't do that easily then there is something very wrong," he says.

Look for Homework Clues

Wilson offers this advice to parents trying to evaluate their students' math instruction:

"If a student isn't bringing home work that requires lots of manipulation and lots of word problems, then there is probably a problem."

Fennell suggests talking to your child and the math teacher about how homework is used. You may learn a lot from the answers if you ask:

*Are homework assignments corrected and returned in a timely way?
*Is homework reviewed in class so students can learn from their mistakes?
*Does the teacher change the pace or direction of his instruction, based on the feedback he gets in homework?

You don't need to be a mathematician to ask good questions about the content of your child's class, Fennell says. "Ask the teacher 'What is the math? Is it a repeat of math that should have already been mastered? When my child finishes this year, will he be ready for high school math?'"

Bill Moore directs the
Transition Mathematics Project in Washington state, which is working to better prepare students for the transition to college math. He summed up what middle school students need to get out of math this way:

"Students need to have a very solid foundation of basic procedural skills that really make problem-solving more fluid. There's a fundamental set of stuff that just has to be memorized, and there there's a sense of numbers, a sense of what's a reasonable answer. That's particularly important with the use of calculators. In some cases, in the elementary grades, they've been used as a crutch. Students go straight to the calculator and if the calculator says it's right, then it must be right."

Look at How Calculators Are Used

Talk to your child's math teacher about how calculators are used in the classroom. Debate has raged for years over whether students are relying too much on calculators and failing to learn the standard algorithms - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But there does seem to be general agreement with the view expressed by Fennell that "the calculator is an instructional tool. It should support but not supplant anything. You don't use it for 6 x 7."

Fore more articles about education, visit the GreatSchools website.


Sarah said...

How would you feel as a parent if no homework were assigned? Would that be a good, bad, or neutral sign? I don't intend to assign homework in my classroom. I believe that if good time management is used in school, then the students can have their free time to themselves.

concernedCTparent said...

Hmmmm.... I guess that depends Sarah. It depends on if I know what's going on in the classroom (homework can be a good way to gauge that), if there is a system of accountability going on in the classroom to track individual concerns and issues, and of course, assuming a strong curriculum that develops solid understanding and continues to challenge my child at his/her level. Having established that "tall order", I do believe that efficient use of classroom time can mean that there shouldn't be a significant amount (if any) homework. If the child is understanding the lesson (we're talking confident, accurate, efficient), how much is overkill?

I've been afterschooling my children for some time and am homeschooling my fifth grader this fall (already started) and I have to say, we move through material very quickly. As long as they grasp the material easily, we move right on through. When they get stuck, we slow down. I monitor and gauge mastery regularly and won't move on if I don't feel it's there. Of course, we're talking a very "private" school (1-2 students) so I can do this. Assuming you are able to accomplish the same with a class of 20+ students (and you're not using TERC or EM), I suppose as a parent I'd be open to a no homework policy with the caveat that I be kept informed of what is being learned and any areas that require reinforcement at home.

concernedCTparent said...

More questions from the parent's perspective... will you send home the classwork that will demostrate the learning taking place? Will there be challenging word problems and work that shows the progress that the child is making?

Tony said...

First, Sarah's comment on this post is actually mine. I didn't pay attention to which Google account was logged on when I wrote.

Second, if parents are willing I would communicate with them every week. I probably wouldn't send work home with students, because that creates a middle man with ulterior motives. But I do need all the help I can get from willing parents.

What I would prefer is to speak with the parents directly, either through a blog or email, over the phone, or in person. I would want to explain the concepts we are working on and give them some ideas for questions or activities that they can use at home to both gauge and magnify their child's learning.

There are a near infinite number of ways to approach a single concept and they all help assess the student's skill level. If anything, I probably lean too much toward word problems and rhetoric. Sometimes I think that the symbolic logic that was designed to make mathematics easier is actually what turns many people away. Word problems help to make math more human.

Certainly all classwork will be made available to the parents and yes, word problems are a must. I may even throw in some TERC motivated strategies (though not the curriculum itself) to better assess what my students are actually learning. I will need parents' help in this assessment process. I know the subject better than them, but they know their children better than me. If there isn't that partnership then I don't see how I can teach the kids anything.

concernedCTparent said...

Yes Tony, partnership is key. Sounds like you have a good plan. Be flexible, make adjustments as needed but most of all be honest and open with parents. You know... just teach like your hair's on fire.

concernedCTparent said...

Oh yes... and I like the blog or email idea. My favorite teachers as a parent have been those that kept the lines of communication open. If there's an issue, I want to know at the beginning, not when it's so far gone it's hard to catch up.

I do think lots of precious class time can be wasted and that good time management might actually give kids the opportunity to learn while still having time to be kids. That would be a nice change.

MC Milker said...

I just found your website through the homeschool carnival (I think). My DS will be starting kindergarten this year using Everyday Math - which to this point I thought was great. Based on reading through some of your posts, I'm not so sure...what's the problem and what should I do about it. afterschooling is an option....

Dawn said...

Great post. I've been floundering a bit in developing a clear and focused math program for my kids. This gives me a bit of a guide and foundation I can explore from. Thanks!