A one-​​twofer this time; edu­ca­tion in the US is basi­cally in the bucket and no one — least of all a semi­re­tarded, demied­u­cated drunken frat boy from Texas — really knows what to do about it.

Vignettishly, the Washington Post reports that grade-​​school kids are tot­ing around math books com­prised of 700+ pages, and are not absorb­ing a damned thing from the texts. Students them­selves are com­plain­ing they don’t have time to absorb what’s being shoved into them; part of the prob­lem is that text­book pub­lish­ers, to maxmize returns, mass pro­duce books that try to meet all states’ edu­ca­tion stan­dards. However

Virginia lists 41 “learn­ing expec­ta­tions” for fourth-​​grade math stu­dents in its statewide Standards of Learning. Maryland lists 67 in its Voluntary State Curriculum. [Washington, DC] has 45 standards.

In order to cover all those stan­dards, you have to expect over­lap, redun­dancy and a lot of con­fu­sion … which appears to be what we’re getting.

Part of the prob­lem with No Child Left Behind, then, is that it’s a man­date with­out stan­dards. That is, the test that chil­dren are sup­posed to pass (to prove they’ve learned what that retard from Texas thinks they should have), while itself a stan­dard­ized met­ric, is not being approached in a stan­dard­ized way. There is no such thing as a nationally-​​standard cur­ricu­lum, only a nationally-​​standard test.

This is on par with the early days of the US, when each colony printed its own cur­rency. Not only was there lit­tle to no inter­change­abil­ity across bor­ders, but often the ten­der itself was sus­pect. Counterfeiting was too easy, and too frequent.

Well, in the arena of math specif­i­cally, there’s a new set of sug­ges­tions called Curriculum Focal Points. This allows teach­ers to con­tinue with their flex­i­ble edu­ca­tion plans while, at the same time, mak­ing coher­ent sug­ges­tions regard­ing what con­cepts chil­dren should be able to grasp at a given grade level. It’s being well-​​received.

The report urges teach­ers to focus on three broad con­cepts in each grade and on a few key sub­jects — includ­ing the base-​​10 num­ber sys­tem, frac­tions, dec­i­mals, geom­e­try and alge­bra — that form the core of math edu­ca­tion in higher-​​achieving nations. Some are call­ing Focal Points the most sig­nif­i­cant pub­li­ca­tion in the field since the 1980s.

Funnily geom­e­try and alge­bra seem to be listed in reverse order here; that may be the doing of the reporter, though. Algebra, as devel­oped by Descartes, any­way, was meant to be a pure-​​numeric expres­sion of geom­e­try. However, my expe­ri­ence was that alge­bra was much eas­ier to work with than geom­e­try; and alge­bra is prob­a­bly bet­ter to have under your belt when you get into chem­istry or Newtonian physics. (Applied math, by the way, is cru­cial — hence it might make some sense to con­sider meld­ing alge­bra with chem­istry, no? Perhaps in those famous, dreaded story problems.)

Still, the above list is a pretty good pro­gres­sive. Without solid under­stand­ing of each of these fun­da­men­tals, math will remain impen­e­tra­ble to stu­dents. When the cur­ricu­lum is focused, though, you get much bet­ter results.

In the fourth grade, for exam­ple, Focal Points trims the list to three essen­tial skills: mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and divi­sion; dec­i­mals; and two-​​dimensional shapes.

Multiplication and divi­sion are basi­cally the same thing, but try telling that to the aver­age fourth-​​grader (or, indeed, many adults, includ­ing the Textard in the White House). Division and frac­tions, of course, are the same as well; and dec­i­mals are fre­quently the expres­sion of a divi­sion operation.

Two-​​dimensional shapes in gen­eral, with­out specifics such as find­ing the unknown angle in a right tri­an­gle or cal­cu­lat­ing its hypotenuse, etc., are pre-​​geometry explo­rations, and as such are as impor­tant as the pre-​​algebraic manip­u­la­tions also expected to be grasped on the fourth-​​grade level. (Fourth grade begins at about age 9, for those unfa­mil­iar with the US edu­ca­tion system.)

Ah, and here’s the rub.

Refocusing the cur­ricu­lum will help strug­gling stu­dents, math­e­mati­cians say, because they need more time to learn the basics. It will also aid math teach­ers across the ele­men­tary and mid­dle grades, many of whom learn com­par­a­tively lit­tle math in get­ting their teach­ing credentials.

That’s right. Many math teach­ers don’t have the aca­d­e­mic back­ground required to know math well enough to teach it.

No won­der they spend so much time in the Teachers’ Lounge.

But is this really dif­fer­ent from PhysEd “coaches” whose sole job descrip­tion seems to be shout­ing “hus­tle up” and “lis­ten up” — as opposed to, say, instruct­ing on fair play, team­work, bal­anced com­pe­ti­tion and the psy­chol­ogy of athletics?

Is this really dif­fer­ent from sci­ence teach­ers who believe the Genesis account in the Bible is 100% fac­tual, that evo­lu­tion is “only a the­ory”, and that Earth is merely 6,000 years old?

Perhaps before we spend more time obsess­ing on stu­dents, we should look at the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of those who teach them.

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