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Well, it looks like we are finally done with our taxes this year. One would think we would learn from our experience and start working on them earlier….

 

In my previous post I talked about my friend’s experience with K-12 education in two countries and the dilemma she faces. Of course there are many factors to consider when making such decisions but I think ‘findingschools’(see comment to previous post)  made an important observation that defining what constitutes good quality education really depends upon how one looks at the issue, ie.  it’s “ in the eye of the beholder”.  For some a rigorous math program may be important while others may focus on foreign language acquisition or exposure to world history and geography. It appears to be very difficult to garner a universal definition of what constitutes good education. Most people agree that a good education should prepare a child for the future by developing the crucial skills needed to navigate the world of work, family life and other areas. Quality of education is therefore defined in terms of whether the educational inputs in the child’s life will guarantee a successful future.

 

Perhaps my question should have been: “Do the current K-12 curricula and methodologies used in the US prepare our children for the world of tomorrow?”  I believe most people will agree that the next generations of US students are more likely to find their best opportunities in an international playing field than in the US alone. Conventional wisdom indicates that it is also likely that these opportunities will require one or more college degrees. Fifty years ago, a high school diploma and perhaps 2 years of college allowed one to lead a relatively comfortable life. Today, it is obvious that having a four year college degree is essential for obtaining better paying opportunities and subsequently a more comfortable life.

 

So as the playing field is expanding to include a global workforce, can American college graduates compete on an equal footing with college graduates worldwide? If children in other countries are being exposed to more math and science facts, foreign languages, an intensive understanding of world history and politics, art, music and so on, from a very early age, wouldn’t they have a broader and stronger foundation to draw from when seeking solutions for the world’s problems? Yes, American children can work independently, are very creative and have a “can do” attitude which is admirable and useful in many situations. But without an in-depth understanding of the principles and policies governing a situation, their solutions may not always be appropriate and feasible.

 

A couple posts back I had expressed my concern about conceptually based math instructional methods. While I agree it is important to understand math concepts in a real world setting, understanding concepts without a strong fact foundation can be more of a hindrance than a help. The ability to automatically recall some basic facts allows for greater mental agility and quicker problem solving without requiring one to use a calculator or search engines on a computer for even the simplest problems.  

 I believe children need a strong facts base as well as a good conceptual understanding of issues in all subjects. American schools seem to focus more on conceptual understanding, independent thinking and creativity at the expense of developing a strong fact foundation. Many schools around the world focus on developing a strong fact base at the expense of creativity and constructivist thinking. In the end, both positions have their flaws. I wonder if a blend of both systems would provide your child the competitive edge he or she needs in a global marketplace?

If so, what can you as a parent do to ensure that the educational inputs your child receives prepares him or her for the future?  

Enakshi Choudhuri 

 

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As I continue to explore what K-12 education in the US offers our children, I thought I would share my friend’s experience with elementary school education in the US and India as an illustrative example. 

 My friend and her husband, like many first generation immigrants in the last decade, came to the US as a result of a job-related relocation. Now, two children later, they have reached the mostly comfortable détente that most modern immigrants achieve between the lands and customs they left and their adopted homes and mores. However, like most immigrants, many members of their extended family including aging parents still live in another country.  

Sometime last year, my friend, who lives in New Jersey, discovered that her mother was in the advanced stages of a terminal illness. My friend immediately packed her bags and hopped on a plane to India with her two children.  During the first few weeks she was very busy reorienting herself back to life in India and organizing medical care and other things for her parents. As the weeks flew by, she realized that her son, a second grader, could not afford to miss school much longer. Her daughter, on the other hand, was only three, so being in school was not as much of a concern for her as it was for her brother.  

At that point, it was very hard for her to predict the length of her stay in India. Being an only child, she also realized her father would need her support for a while once her mother passed on. So she decided to enroll her kids in an Indian school for the rest of the academic year. 

 Her son, a very bright child had been enrolled in a top ranked gifted program in New Jersey. However, considering that the standard curriculum in all Indian schools required students to learn three languages (English and 2 Indian languages) starting at Pre-K level, my friend realized her son would encounter considerable difficulties in catching up to his classmates. With everything else going on in her life, my friend really could not afford to spend the time to bring her son up to speed in two languages (one of which her son had hardly been exposed to). She looked for alternatives and enrolled him in an international school, where a number of children of foreign expatriates were also enrolled. This school did not require children to know a second or third language and offered French as a second language in third grade. Her son easily passed the entrance test in Math and English that was required for admission.  

After a few months my friend was surprised to observe that the general standard of education in the regular classes at the international school was comparable to what her son had encountered in the gifted program in New Jersey. The “extra” academic inputs being offered to her son in the gifted program in New Jersey were part of the standard curriculum for all students in this international school in India. Her son fortunately is doing very well in India and my friend intends to let him complete the academic year at this school. 

But this experience has had a big impact on my friend. She now wonders whether they should relocate back to India so that her children would have access to a better quality of education. I would like to point out that her experience is not unusual. I know many people who have relocated back to India or Singapore or other Asian countries in the recent past primarily because they believed that their children would get a better education. 

So, what constitutes a good quality education? How do we know that our kids are getting a good education? What are our bases for comparison?  These I hope to talk about further in my next post.

Enakshi Choudhuri

After reading my last post, a couple of people asked me – “If your daughter is in one of the best school districts in your area, she will get a good, well rounded education, and in the end that’s what really matters. Don’t you think you are overreacting?”  Perhaps they are right. It is entirely possible that I am making more of this than I need to. After all we had moved into this particular school district primarily because of its academic reputation.   

However, I will say I am a little troubled by their choice of math instructional methods. The school district uses Everyday Mathematics at the elementary level, a curriculum developed by the University Of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP, and funded by the National Science Foundation) which is heavily language oriented and aims at developing a ‘conceptual’ understanding of mathematics. Students take a ‘constructivist’ approach to math and solve real world problems. Students also pursue a number of math strands simultaneously and the level of complexity spirals upwards as one goes from grade 1 to grade 6. At the middle school level they use Connected Math and then in high school they use Core-Plus Math wherein disparate math strands such as Algebra and Geometry are integrated together and the students use real world examples to understand mathematical concepts. The entire math program from Everyday Math to Core Plus Math seems to be based on developing a conceptual understanding with little attention to repetitive drills to hone in math skills. When I started reading about this program, the concept of providing real world examples and really understanding what math was all about seemed very appealing.  As I researched this particular curriculum a little more, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable. 

So now I had some questions about the curriculum advocated by the UCSMP and the NSF-

v     Do constructivist approaches to math like Core-Plus Math actually provide the strong quantitative background that is essential for at least ninety percent of the jobs that are out there?

v     How effective is this ‘New New Math’ in helping our children get into college and obtain decent paying jobs?

v     Will this reform math ensure that our children remain competitive in a global market where the playing field had expanded to encompass practically every geographical location in the world? American children will be competing with children educated in other countries like Singapore, China, Japan, India, and several European countries where the quality of general math education is so much higher.  

 I will address the question of what constitutes “quality” in general math education in a later post, but here are some insights I found in regard to the other questions I posed. On www.edwatch.org, a recent article by Elizabeth Green (Nov 20, 2007) indicated that the state of Texas had dropped the Everyday Math curriculum because “it left public school graduates unprepared for college”. Recommendations on the Ivy (Ivy League) Bound Test Prep website (http://www.ivybound.net/suggestbyyear.html) for high school freshmen were, “And if your school is trying to place you in an “Integrated Math” program, get out. Their track records in helping kids for standardized tests and college level math are poor.”  

A study by Richard Hill and Thomas Parker (December 2006, http://www.mth.msu.edu/~hill/HillParker5.pdf) on Core Plus (integrated math) students and their subsequent performance in math classes at Michigan State University showed that “Except for some top students, graduates of Core-Plus mathematics are struggling in college mathematics at Michigan State University. The evidence shows that they were less well prepared than either graduates in the Control group (who came from a broad mix of curricula) or graduates of their own high schools before the implementation of Core-Plus mathematics” 

Gregory Bachelis and James Milgram, both mathematics university professors, wrote about a study Bachelis conducted in Michigan. He solicited feedback from alumni of schools using Core-Plus math (CPM) and schools using traditional math (TM). He found that the average SAT scores for students taking TM was 59 points higher than those in CPM schools; the average college GPA of CPM students was lower than TM students; a CPM student who had a 4.0 high school GPA was placed in remedial math in college.  These findings and many more appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 12, 1999.  

Across the country, there are angry parents and students who have complained about the Core-Plus math system. Many are forced to turn to tutoring, after school math remedial programs, drilling at home or changing schools to avoid the integrated math curriculum.  Almost twenty years after the advent of reform math, the math wars continue to rock the countryside.  Some of us have heard it before and some like me are discovering it for the first time and are nonplussed. Aren’t twenty years long enough to understand the effectiveness/ ineffectiveness of a system? I am surprised that no one has found the answers as yet (at least not as per the research I have done so far). 

 I realize I definitely need to do more research to provide a balanced view of this issue. However, what I have seen so far is not encouraging.  It is downright scary when scientists, mathematicians, and university professors all seem to agree that the new reform “integrated math” does not do justice. My post is probably just touching the tip of the iceberg.  I’d urge you to read the comments from various university professors on the following blog- http://www.claytonmathmatters.com/professorFeedback.html.  Some of their comments on the Core Plus systems were illuminating. 

I will continue this discussion in another post. Before signing off, I want to add that every child has their own special talents. For many children math may not come naturally or they may have learning disabilities for which they may need specialized methods of instruction.  My post on K-12 education does not cover these specialized methods. 

Looking forward to your comments and experiences.

Enakshi Choudhuri

Our daughter started first grade last fall. She is enrolled in one of the best public school districts in the Twin Cities area. My husband and I grew up in India and came to the US to attend graduate school in our respective disciplines.  While we have considerable knowledge of how higher education systems work in this country, we are relatively unfamiliar with the K-12 system. Growing up in India meant that throughout our school life, academics received top priority and we were encouraged to excel in all subject areas. Sports and other activities were supported on the condition that our school work was not compromised in any manner.  In retrospect, the Indian educational system with its emphasis on basic skills and in-depth knowledge acquisition worked for us and countless other children, even though the system had its share of problems.  

In the past year or so, we have been discovering K-12 education in America. Needless to say, both my husband and I have been taken aback by what we have gathered so far. Consider the following statements:

  • “Correct spelling is not important anymore.”
  • “Carryover addition is an old fashioned math technique that we don’t teach at school.”
  • Children learn 7 or 8 different strands in math in a simultaneous or parallel fashion rather than in a sequential manner wherein they would master one topic before going on to the next.
  • First grade students can use calculators to add and subtract ‘messy numbers’!
  • Special enrichment classes are available for the top 1% and the bottom 10% of the student body but the students who fall in-between (practically 90% of the class) are expected to make do with whatever the teacher is able to come up with after attending to the other 10 or 11 % who need help (some of this is a direct fallout of the No Child Left Behind directives).

 Do any of these statements seem familiar? Do any of them make sense? Why would anyone teach in this manner? Is my daughter learning anything in school? Is she going to grow up without the requisite skills to compete in a global economy?  The questions spiral out of control. 

As I started digging into this, I came across a recent article in the New York Times on math education by Tamar Lewin, who stated, American students’ math achievement is “at a mediocre level” compared with that of their peers worldwide… The article goes on to discuss how research on the impact of changes in math teaching methods in the past couple of decades has not favored either ‘teacher-based or student-centered instruction.’(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/14/education/14math.html).

And another article in our local newspaper,State not teaching what it practices in technology, math provided mixed reactions on what exactly is needed to make US students more competitive in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. http://www.startribune.com/local/north/17003576.html

Does all this mean that the US K-12 system is failing our children?  Every system has its issues but if the system as a whole does not deliver results what are the options? How can we, as parents, ensure that our children develop the skills needed to stay competitive in a global economy? Suddenly K-12 education has become an obsession for me and I find myself scrambling to find answers.  

In my next post I will continue our voyage of discovery. I would love to hear your comments and experiences with K-12 educational systems in the US or elsewhere.

Enakshi Choudhuri