Dear President Barack Obama,
I have been meaning to write you a letter and post it on my blog since the day you were elected. I realize the chances of you, yourself, reading it are slim, despite the fact that you do read some of the letters written to you. Still, I keep getting the internal nudge to do it. I am a strong supporter of you and worked hard for you during the election.
I am going to try and break up all I would like to say into a series of weekly letters to the President. I will mail the original version off to you (you never know – I might get through) and post a version of the letter on my blog that helps me keep my anonymity.
I am a public school teacher in Hawaii. Enough said for why my blog is anonymous.
I have a lot of opinions on education and what needs to be done to improve education, but will save most of those ideas for another time. For this letter I would like to focus on math curriculum and limit the focus to a microscopic perspective as seen from one gifted boy’s experience.
My son went to public elementary school in Hawaii. From third through sixth grade he complained that they were repeating the same math and not teaching him anything new. For fun, he would do his older sister’s algebra. We put him in Kumon after school in order for him to be challenged, move forward on his skills, and not be held back. My cousin in LA put his son in Kumon and his son credits Kumon for his success in high school math, his full scholarship to USC, and his subsequent success as a chemical engineer.
By 7th grade the Kumon teacher/franchise owner told us our son was as high in his skills as her franchise went and that we needed to switch centers if we wanted him to stay in Kumon. She also told us he was the most naturally gifted math student she had ever taught.
When our son was in sixth grade we applied him for private schools. Although he did not get into Punahou (your alma mater), we were asked to come and meet with the Dean of Admissions. At the meeting, the Dean showed us our son’s SSAT scores. His reading and writing were right in line with the students who were accepted into Punahou that year. His math, however, was an entire stanine above most of the students they were taking into Punahou. The Dean explained how excited he was at Son’s math potential; however, Son’s grades were all “C’s” and “B’s” and his teacher recommendations were less than stellar. Son has ADHD and when bored can clown around and generally irritate teachers. The Dean recommended we wait a year and reapply so Son could mature.
The next year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the costs of treatment and my missing six months of work kept us from reapplying our son for private school. Instead he went through Hawaii public school systems. He switched schools twice and the methods for teaching math varied considerably from school to school. This was also true within a given school, depending on the teacher. There was always an emphasis on “discovery” with practice and drill of basics often removed nearly completely from the curriculum.
So, here we are now. We have a son who was born with an extraordinary gift for math. Whose parents have tried as well as we can to get him into a school or program that would develop his math potential. And he now will have to retake math classes he should have had in high school (competently) when he goes to college. His dreams of being a pre-med major have been smashed and the kid has fallen into a deep depression over his lost potential.
I know I am neither a math teacher nor a math person. So my thoughts are just what make sense to me. I understand that students need to know how to apply their math skills in authentic ways. But I strongly believe that first they need know how to do the basics backwards and forwards and without hesitation.
Like my son, I, too, was gifted in math when I was young. Growing up in pre-proposition 13 California, I was lucky to go to good schools where they had their shit together. In sixth grade we were tested and grouped according to ability. For math I was sent to a class that challenged me. Math books were set up so that one practiced a formula over and over until it was second nature. “Word problems” were always at the end of the chapter and applying the math skills in complex problems and projects only took place after the student was completely competent in the basics.
It seems to me that must have worked just fine because in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s America was number one. From what I have seen of those countries that are passing us by in the math scores these days, an emphasis is put on speed and accuracy of the basics before the complexity and discovery paradigms.
At the school where I work, young teachers are actually told NOT to answer students’ math questions directly, but with another question. In this way the students “discover” the solutions themselves. I truly do not get this. The kids are so ignorant of the basic formulas that they cannot determine what do at all. We have horrible math scores, yet we keep doing the same thing.
So, perhaps, is there some discussion going on at your level for how to get America competitive in math? Any talk of math curriculum? Because I am thinking…. If our son, who had supportive parents who paid for outside intervention to enhance our son’s public education, if our son could lose his potential in the amorphous maze of math education in Hawaii, what about the kids born with the same potential in homes with little or no parental support? How is America to remain competitive if even those born with gifts have such a difficult time getting those gifts developed in our public education system?
Until next week,