Hope for math ed, an unlikely catalyst

We’ve come a long way since the “back to basics” movement of the 1970’s that framed math as memorized steps, devoid of much practical application.  Common Core, NCTM’s 13 Rules that Expire, and Nixthetricks.com downloaded 44k+ times have undoubtedly contributed to the slam-dunk movement to teach useful math.  With the united calls from P21.org and businesses across the country for problem-solving skills, it is unlikely that pendulum is likely to swing back toward robotic math procedures anytime soon…except maybe in the context of coding apps.


So the question is, where are we on the scale for serious progress with our students in terms of problem solving skills?  Surely Classroom Instruction that Works (McReL)  has made inroads addressing the changing needs for engaging our students in practice, connection, and recall. A plethora of pedagogical strategies hit the Internet as MTBoS was born with a hashtag, and their contagious spirit of creativity with collegial support has spread like virtual gel.

But where are we on the scale for serious progress in problem solving?  Where are we in terms of problem-based or discovery learning (PBDL), especially at the high school level? Since we are all pretty much in agreement that math needs to be useful and students need to be able to solve problems, what’s the holdup there?  Erin Murphy spells out the oscitancy well here.


Until recently, the main problem has been unavailability of trustworthy resources. Publishers have been stamping Common Core on their antiquities and effectively selling them like old, holey socks. They had it down:  Teachers were more than willing to purchase whatever looked most familiar. Feet firmly embedded in concrete, few of us have seriously moved toward PBDL.  But I’m thinking we are on the cusp of very exciting change, headed by the small but onto-it-non-profit:  EdReports.org (ER).  I liken ER to an emergency room for math education.


When ER released their initial reports, they received some backlash from NCTM and others. They made some changes; and while not everyone is happy yet, recent backing from AchievetheCore.org with CCSS writers on board will undoubtedly boost credibility. Reading ER reviews and comparing them with resources under consideration in my teaching context has been enlightening, to say the least.  Responses from publishers caught with their inadequacies seem to be whining about tattletales in comparison with the sophistication of the ER reviews.  ER’s main impact is enlightening administrators who rightfully ask those making resource decisions, “How do the bells and whistles of this resource offset the fact they are not aligned to our standards?”  

From my desk, the most empowering information is in the evaluation of modeling standards, associated with PBDL.  My fear of PBDL is in my inadequacy for connecting the topics in a spiraling sequence that assures mastery and retention.  ER takes much of the guesswork out of that.  I am not seeing much in the way of perfect scores yet, but ER provides me with enough information to understand where the defects in resources are and which are easy enough to remedy.

As Murphy points out, professional development is key because the best resources will fail if teachers do not understand how to use them.  PBDL is an entirely different way of teaching for most of us.  Resources like CPM require PD with their materials, which makes perfect sense in order to preserve their reputation for effectiveness.

As administrators begin to insist teachers use resources aligned to their standards, ER is likely to play a key role in moving the whole math ed ship into productivity. Who would have thought a little non-profit like ER could have such impact.






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