Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Let's Improve Math at Plano ISD

I've mentioned that we need to make improvements in elementary school mathematics. I will share a few ideas here.

One step is to change the attitude towards math. The attitude conveyed is that math is confusing and hard to understand. My son got honest-to-goodness Algebra problems in 2nd grade homework. One problem was to solve two simultaneous equations in two unknowns. Most children cannot do that in 8th grade, and there I am at the kitchen table showing my son how to solve 2 equations in 2 unknowns. That was absurd. Of course children will think math is confusing and hard to understand when they do not get age-appropriate problems.

The elementary school curriculum is disjointed. The home work problems in 2nd grade were too hard. Then the home work problems in 3rd grade are too easy. The over-all math curriculum in elementary school is a hodge-podge and needs more coordination.

We need to convey the attitude to elementary school students that doing math is easy if you listen in class and practice at home. Math is like putting money in the bank: you make regular deposits and you end up with a good account. The student invests efforts regularly and ends up with good math skills: it is predictable and guaranteed.

The buck-shot approach taken in elementary school makes math seem confusing. They do not master a skill before moving on, they hop around frequently so the children are always being reminded they did not master the material the last time they saw it or they discover they have forgotten what they learned.

The key to elementary school math is to focus on doing math and mastering the key skills.

The State of Texas has given us a curriculum: the TEKS. We need to implement it and here is a simple set of guidelines for success in math:
1.) Master addition in 1st grade
2.) Master subtraction in 2nd grade
3.) Master multiplication in 3rd grade
4.) Master division in 4th grade
There is no emphasis on mastering these skills. Children must learn their math facts.

I have a friend who graduated from UT Austin with a Masters in Computer Science who told me he went to college not knowing his multiplication facts. He eventually learned his multiplication facts in college because he needed them.

Something else the district can improve is teacher training. Too much teacher training in math is directed towards teaching games the teachers can use in the classroom. It is my observation that some of the math teachers can benefit from improving their own math skills. From elementary school all the way up to high school I have seen certified math teachers who cannot solve some of the math problems they are trying to teach the students. Young math teachers have not had enough practice in college doing the math they are expected to teach. Young teachers who need help should get that help.

Plano students can reap large rewards from improving elementary school mathematics, which are the foundation for all mathematics. The changes I suggest are not expensive and not difficult.


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