Math education doesn’t add up

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Sitting in the auditorium, this much-abused group was interested, excited.

They were math teachers, here to listen to a fellow math teacher who made a film, “The Biggest Story Problem: Why America’s Students Are Failing at Math.”

As a teacher in Questa, Scott Laidlaw could see students in his fifth through eighth grade classes who couldn’t multiply. Just one in five was proficient in math. The tools he had, especially the 777-page textbook, weren’t working, so he developed a game that would require kids to use math to help a fictional primitive girl named Ko complete her journey.

“Ko’s Journey” worked so well that a friend suggested adding software. That led to an educational computer game, a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, trial runs in 10 schools across the country (three in New Mexico), and a start-up business — Imagine Education, based in Taos. The film documents the game’s development but has a lot to say about how we teach math in America, and how we teach — period.

“We discovered we weren’t alone,” Laidlaw said. “Students across the United States are struggling.”

The evidence is abundant and depressing. American kids do well in math until about the eighth grade and then plummet to the bottom of the developed world’s students by 10th grade. If we don’t turn that around, we will see our nation slide from power as the rest of the world leaves us behind.

The film, which is well done, delivers its message clearly and, often, with humor: Memorization is not learning. Pressure to perform on tests impedes the portion of the brain needed for math calculations. Rewards, such as candy, stickers, even grades, undermine a child’s natural desire to learn; learning is its own reward. Direct feedback from teacher to student is far more effective than a grade.

One of the more eye-opening revelations is the sheer size of our textbooks – typically three or four times the size of textbooks in countries that outperform us. We try to cram everything imaginable between two covers – and into our classes – while the top-performing countries narrow their focus.

Laidlaw traveled to Finland, which produces the world’s best math students, to see how they do it. Some conclusions: Schools set a relaxed tone in class, kids get a healthy, free lunch, the math text is 200-some pages, there are no rewards, teachers are respected, and the school day is shorter.

One telling moment occurred after the film, when a woman approached Laidlaw and introduced herself as board president of “the worst school system in New Mexico — we got an F.” It was one of those moments when you understand that those grades become a stain that doesn’t come out.

“As soon as she said that, I felt a sense of how painful this is,” Laidlaw told me. “It shows us how our students feel when we grade them. When we do that, we’re no longer teaching, and we’re not expecting them to learn, but we’re creating an assessment. Feedback needs to be immediate, relevant and not comparing to others.” Schools now spend half their time in assessment, he adds.

One of the educators quoted in the film said, “If I give you feedback and a number, all you’ll remember is the number. If I give you feedback and a letter, all you’ll remember is the letter.” Laidlaw and his partner, CPA Jennifer Lightwood, are in the initial stages of exposure for both the film and the game. Math teachers are intrigued. “Teachers can relate to Scott as a teacher and relate to the film,” says Lightwood. “Documentaries are typically from the outside. We show the inside view.”

They also get a lot of thanks for not bashing teachers, and that’s another telling moment. Everybody who cares about education should see this film. Go to www.imagineeducation.org.