Why Kids Can’t Do Math Without a Calculator and the Common Core Isn’t Helping

calculatorKonstantin Kakaes wrote an interesting article in Slate entitled, “Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator” about how technology is hurting, not helping kids really learn math.

I went to see (Vern) Williams because he was famous when I was in middle school 20 years ago, at a different school in the same county. Longfellow’s teams have been state champions for 24 of the last 29 years in MathCounts, a competition for middle schoolers. Williams was the only actual teacher on a 17-member National Mathematics Advisory Panel that reported to President Bush in 2008.

Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”

The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing, and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way. The examples bloat the books to thousands of pages and disrupt the logical flow of ideas. (For instance, the standard geometry book for Fairfax County, which is used in schools around the country, tries to explain what a mathematical point is by analogy to pixels on TV screens, which are not in fact point-like.) Teachers at other schools in the county have told him that they would rather use the old books, too, but their principals would kill them. Other teachers have told me the same about new technologies—they, like Williams, think the technologies are ineffectual, but lack his courage to oppose them

The real shortfall in math and science education can be solved not by software or gadgets but by better teachers. Programs like Wu’s can make more teachers more like Williams. That’s where efforts should be focused, not on imagined technological solutions, which obscure more than they reveal.

You’d think the Common Core Math Standards would come to the rescue right?  Right?  Think again.  They promulgate the problem.

In this, the new Common Core standards for math, which were adopted with lightening speed by 45 states and Washington, D.C., fall short. They fetishize “data analysis” without giving students a sufficient grounding to meaningfully analyze data. Though not as wishy-washy as they might have been, they are of a piece with the runaway adaption of technology: The new is given preference over the rigorous.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.