Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mediocrity In Math Instruction

In an effort to improve the average level of mathematical competence among American students, a new experiment has been under way for several years in our schools.

Called "Whole Group" instruction or "Whole Math" by some, this movement is based on the laudable idea that all students should function at or above a minimum acceptable level of mathematical competence.

What this means in practice, however, is that all students, regardless of innate ability or interest, are made to move at the same pace through the math curricula. Bright students must wait for low achieving students to catch on or catch up, before being allowed to move into other more advanced topics. In this system, the needs of students at or near the bottom are deemed to be more important than those of the top students in class, and advanced pupils with the most talent are held hostage by the least able and slowest moving ones.

Whereas the blatant unfairness and obvious unworkability of this system is recognized in the realm of reading instruction, where students have long been grouped according to ability in order to better meet the widely varying needs of slower and brighter students alike, the same common sense has not, unfortunately, prevailed in the teaching of mathematics. Championed by the current leaders in math education, including the National Association of Teachers of Mathematics, the doctrine of "Whole Group" instruction and "Math for the Masses" has become a sort of political correctness within the math education community. Dissenting opinions and opposition to this crazy idea are stridently fought back as "repressive" and "old school." One would never dream of forcing an advanced early reader to stunt his or growth in a lower level reading group, yet this is exactly what happens in school as children are taught mathematics.

Although the goals of egalitarianism and equal opportunity are very important, so is accepting the reality that not all people are equally talented or similarly motivated in all things. While inflexible, permanent "tracking" is unfair and definitely not the answer, neither is permanent "anti-tracking" that shackles the best and brightest students to the heels of the slowest and least interested ones.

A recent opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer does a good job of dissecting the issue. Read a reprint of the article here.


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