Share
Pin it!
Google Plus

Students Are Being Mathematically Abused!

Moderator
Good afternoon and welcome to this month’s chat with NCTM President Johnny Lott. Our first question, submitted in advance, is from

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

I think use of the word “abused” in this context is completely inappropriate. Of course there are millions of children who are not being mathematically (or linguistically) prepared to function successfully as adults. This is inexcusable, and we should working tirelessly for change, but it doesn’t fall within common usage of the word abuse. Let’s leave this kind of hyperbole to the tabloids—it diminishes our message.

Johnny Lott:

I believe strongly that children who are constantly told that they cannot do math, that their parents cannot do math, and that today’s students cannot do math are being mathematically abused. We would not accept this behavior if the topic were not math. We should not accept it when it is math. As long as we allow it to continue, through language at home, testing that is unfair, and by our treatment of some children, we are condoning an injustice that should be eliminated.

If you are offended by the “tabloid” treatment, I apologize, but I believe that the headline is real and not the opening to a “tabloid” story.

Question from:
Grapevine, Texas

You hit the nail on the head. It is the teacher in my case. She is a rude, insulting person. She has no business in the teaching profession. Students are told “Go sit down. We went over that two weeks ago.” The teacher will not teach; it is just go get to work. I ask you how can students learn if they are not allowed to ask questions? The teacher just sits there at her desk on her computer doing personal e-mails. There are 14 students in the class my son is in. Only two students are passing, my son made the highest failing grade. He has asked for help, we even had him stay for her tutoring classes, but once again it was, “Go sit down and work the problem.” I would really like to know: Is this the best we can do? Is this what a teacher is supposed to be like? She needs to be tested herself. She has had three different teaching jobs in three different schools in 3 years. Doesn’t that tell you something? Help us here in the state of Texas.

Johnny Lott:
Reading your question causes me great concern and grief for you and your son. In situations such as this one, I urge you to have a personal conversation with the teacher first to explain the concerns and see if some resolution can be found. If not and you still have concerns for your son’s learning, please consider a conference with the teacher, your son’s counselor and with the principal. Not knowing all the circumstances makes it hard to give advice, but I would encourage you to follow up with the teacher. A good resource is found at http://www.figurethis.org/fc/family_corner_school.htm. It gives potential questions and suggestions for approaching the school. Good luck.

Question from:
Cleveland, Ohio

I definitely get what you are saying, as it seems to happen in my school. In our school, we have accelerated classes (I’m in the 10th grade, taking Algebra II and will be taking pre-calculus next semester), and due to our acceleration, our math class is not learning everything the teacher assigns us. The teacher doesn’t actually take the time to teach us how to do certain things such as finding quadratic functions, but rather just gives us the work and lets us find out on our own, and when we try to ask questions like how to do it, the teacher says, “They are unimportant during class and need to be asked at the end.” Although I’m a B student, it really gets hard, and I tend to fail on tests because our teacher doesn’t actually help us (besides showing us the answer). I agree with you 100 percent, but I wonder, would there be an easier way for him to teach us? He throws a lot of assignments at us, and gives us a little time to do them, and half of the class doesn’t understand how to do certain problems.

Johnny Lott:

I’m not sure that there was a question for me in here, but I’m going out on a limb to write an answer to what I think the question might be. It appears that one concern is that you are missing some things that you consider basic in the class that you are taking. That is a valid concern and should be discussed with your teacher, either as an individual or as a class as a whole if you all have that feeling.

Questions to consider for you and your fellow students are: (1) What resources do you have that can be used to help? For example, do you have small working groups of students that discuss homework and the process of getting answers as well as how to do individual problems? Cooperating in small groups outside of class and in answering each other’s questions may be a big help to you. Do try this one. This is not a suggestion to get together and copy homework, but a true working and explaining group. Try it and you might really like it. (2) What resources are available at school? Extra help time? Study hall visits to the teacher? Or visits to ask questions at lunch or after or before school? Is there online help at your school? If not, could it be started? (3) Have you tried the http://mathforum.org/? In particular try the Ask Dr. Math section of the Math Forum. You might find help there. Keep at it; and ask a sibling or a parent for help. Don’t be embarrassed. My father (with whom I frequently disagreed) helped me tremendously.

Question from:
Wilmington, Delaware

I raised the issue that while I would be willing to teach Algebra 1, that I was neither certified nor qualified to do so. The principal replied, “Bobo the Clown could teach Algebra here.” Most of my students in this middle school never had their own math books.

Johnny Lott:

While textbooks are not the complete answer to any curriculum, with a teacher who admittedly was neither certified nor qualified, a good textbook in my mind would have been a necessity. Without it, neither the students nor you may have known where to go and what to do. As an instructional leader of the school, the principal’s response was inappropriate.

Question from:
Rochester, Michigan

I have also used the term “child abuse” in the context of mathematics education, perhaps in a more controversial way. Some of the college students who want to teach elementary school do not like mathematics, do not want to learn mathematics with the understanding that they must in order to teach it effectively, and resent having to take and do well in courses (such as the one I teach, using your book, incidentally) in mathematics content. It may get me in trouble, but I tell the students with this attitude who are in my class that for them to go unprepared and poorly disposed into the elementary school classroom amounts to child abuse. They must either change their attitudes or change their majors. You may not wish to go quite that far, but do you agree that we need to be more selective in whom we certify to teach our children?

Johnny Lott:

Interesting! I do agree that no one should a teacher of mathematics with a view they do not like mathematics, did not want to learn mathematics with or without understanding, and who resented having to take it to be prepared. Is that too strong? I don’t think so. Students deserve teachers who are excited about what they teach and who value what they teach. At the same time, those of us who do work with perspective teachers have an obligation to model how we want them to teach. We have to have the same respect for our students and subjects that we want the future teachers to have. Thanks for asking.

Question from:
Spearfish, South Dakota

I have a slightly different sense of the premise that students are being abused. While I agree that high-stakes assessments and lack of appropriate funding are part of the problem, I am absolutely convinced that no amount of money accompanied with removal of high-stakes assessments will ameliorate the most important aspects of mathematical abuse.

The real abuse is the training of students to believe that math is not about making sense but about calculating numbers, that math is a collection of largely disconnected algorithms, and that math problems are either solved quickly or else “you can’t do math.” The development of detrimental beliefs and attitudes is the key problem.

My question therefore is this: Has the leadership of NCTM backed off on its effort to push for meaningful reform of math teaching?

Johnny Lott;

If I have given the impression that NCTM has retreated from its push for meaningful reform of math teaching and learning, I apologize. Nothing could be further from reality. Money cannot solve all issues in mathematics education and neither can assessments. Both can be helpful though. We need to have teachers who earn a living wage, and unfortunately that is not the case in all parts of the country. Business leaders say, “If you value it, you will pay for it.” The public still needs to learn that lesson in education. Assessments have value, but only if one remembers what they are for, how they are used, and how they are administered.

At the same time, there are things we can do to help mathematics education and prevent abuse without money. Examples include giving inexperienced teachers decent assignments to teach, not assigning them to the worst working conditions in schools, and mentoring them. In addition, we could use the “fresh” teachers to provide inservice on content for some “more experienced” teachers who may not have had the content updates needed.

Finally, NCTM is in the process of publishing a mathematics education political advocacy platform that can be used in a variety of states and in the nation. Far from backing off, I believe that we are moving forward.

Question from:
La Plata, Maryland

I would think most members of NCTM would agree that “the system” is abusing students mathematically as described by your statement. This is a serious issue and needs to be continually addressed by NCTM.

I do wonder, however, whether this is a wise approach to take politically. That students are suffering under mathematics instruction is obvious. The cause of the suffering does appear to be a matter of one’s point of view. Could not this same abuse argument be used by those focusing upon older instructional methods and supporting teacher and school accountability as the solution to the problem? Could this not result in even more pressure and even legal threats on mathematics educators and even NCTM? Might this approach even make those states that have opted out of No Child Left Behind subject to federal control?

Johnny Lott:

I appreciate the concerns listed. However, we have ample evidence that not addressing the issues at all levels continues to cause both students and us as educators grief. We have an obligation to deliver a quality mathematics education to all students. That may cause an examination of personal practice, but we cannot ignore possible injustices to students caused by external pressures. Thanks for the words of caution.

Question from:
Charleston, Illinois

The system is protecting too many bad teachers who, come hell or high water, are not going to incorporate the Standards into their teaching and they know there is no one who can “make them.” The teacher union is too strong and unfortunately is protecting bad teachers. Children will continue to be abused until we rid the system of mediocre teachers. We have so many wonderfully talented young people getting their degrees in elementary/middle school teaching who cannot find a place to teach because a system has too many duds in the classrooms and if a new teacher is hired, he or she is expected to conform with the “whatever will be” philosophy espoused by the “tenured” faculty.

As an organization NCTM should stand up and be counted. We should be for the children, and every day we should work to enrich their lives with all the beauty of mathematics and the other disciplines. AND we should do everything possible to weed out those teachers who refuse to include the Standards in their curriculum or constantly impede the progress of children.

Johnny Lott:

Good thoughts! If I were king of the world, I would increase NCTM membership by at least a power of 10 to give the organization more clout. At the local level where teaching jobs are controlled, I encourage all mathematics educators, teachers and others, to become involved politically. We need to promote good mathematics educators and teachers to run for school boards and get involved in community organizations to promote the field. NCTM has just adopted a political advocacy platform for mathematics education, and tool kits will soon be available for NCTM Affiliates to use at the local and state level as well as on the national scene. We encourage all Affiliates to consider the planks of that platform. There will be a session on it in Philadelphia. I hope that you can attend.

For those of you who don’t know, Charleston is home of one very large student Affiliate of NCTM. If you are a member, thanks.

Question from:
Atlanta, Georgia

I don’t understand how students “are not allowed to develop cognitively because of high-stakes assessments.” Assessments, whether high stakes or not, IF well designed can be very informative and useful as they are in psychological testing of all kinds.

Johnny Lott:

Right now there are places in this country where “high-stakes assessments” at fourth grade (and possibly lower grade levels) are determining whether or not students can take algebra in high school. If this does not hinder students’ cognitive development, I’m not sure what example I can give you. High-stakes assessments are being used in some places as methods for keeping students out of higher-level mathematics. I’m sorry but that is a risk that some of us aren’t willing to take. See NCTM’s position paper on high-stakes assessment at http://www.nctm.org/about/position_statements/highstakes.htm.

Question from:
Grand Rapids, Michigan

I think you are correct. Many school districts do not have the budget. Children need to enjoy learning math, not just for a state test.

Johnny Lott:

Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure that there is a question here, but we do need to continually ask what can school districts do to help mathematics learning without money as well.

Question from:
Spanaway, Washington

From a former student:

In your article about child abuse you discuss a problem with a classroom of 40 students. Is it the lack of financial support that you are calling abusive or a combination of high standards with a lack of funding? I also wonder what your position is on the high-stakes testing that comes along with ESEA.

Johnny Lott:

Your question is challenging as a double-part question. The classroom to which I referred had 40 students with limited tools and equipment for students. That shows a lack of financial support regardless of standards. That in and of itself is an issue. All schools should have high standards for their students, but standards should not be something that we hide behind. With high standards come high expectations for teachers as well as students. This may mean teachers at each level or grade have to work with teachers at the grade levels above and below to know where students are and where they should be. This cannot be a rigid system but neither can we afford to teach without this knowledge of students’ backgrounds and the needed prerequisites for the next level.

NCTM’s position on high-stakes testing is found at http://www.nctm.org/about/position_statements/highstakes.htm. I certainly agree with it.

As to requirements of recent laws, the next President’s Message in the News Bulletin touches on it. This is a promotional announcement. Stay tuned.

Question from:
Arlington, Texas

Although funding is an issue, “high-stakes assessments” will be our downfall. As an intermediate school teacher of mathematics in Texas (where TAKS is the answer to any question ever asked) each year I see my students fall farther behind because we are asking them to use complicated thought processes before they are developmentally ready. Instead of fostering confidence and security in the mathematical way to think, we are forced to reinforce daily what they don’t know or can’t do. We are forced to push through the basics to “make” them learn the “harder” stuff, which requires the use of basics for completion. All that does is make our students feel worse about school and math. Standardized tests are designed to monitor an individual child’s growth throughout the years. It is just one assessment tool among many. What a shame that Texas feels passing a test is the key to success instead of the key to understanding the individual child. Our children are being set up to fail.

Johnny Lott:

I’m not sure about the question here, but here is an answer. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a useful test that all states began using for the first time recently. NAEP can give us clues to how we are doing as a nation in mathematics and can in some ways be thought of as a continuing longitudinal study of mathematics learning.

A major issue is how other tests and results are being used. If they inform teaching and learning in a way that helps students, that is good. If not, then we should question their use.

Question from:
Front Royal, Virginia

Would you also agree that the media, parents, and others contribute to the mathematical abuse of students by sending them messages such as “It's okay, I was no good at math, either,” or “Math is for geeks?”

Johnny Lott:

Unfortunately, much that we see in the media does put down students who like mathematics. Fortunately, not all does. One obligation we have as mathematics educators is to make sure that all our local press and media as well as our state and national legislators know good mathematics teachers and students and have them as ready examples when they either want advice or need a story involving math. No one in the media or in the legislature should be allowed to say truthfully that they do not know a good math teacher or student.

Question from:
Oneonta, New York

How do you think available technology should be used in a classroom? Should it be treated as the lesson, or as a supplement to the material already learned by the students?

Johnny Lott:

Technology is a tool just as chalk or markers are tools. What we are learning is that technology is changing what mathematics needs to be learned by all and is changing how it can be learned. Research has answered the question of whether or not calculators should be used in mathematics. That battle should be over and we should be using them. Trend evidence supports the use of other technology in teaching mathematics.

Should we teach the tool as a lesson? The lessons are mathematics. We may have to teach some uses of the tool, but the tool is not the focus, mathematics is. Like my cell phone, do I need to know all of its intricacies to use it? No.

Question from:
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

What constitutes mathematical abuse?

Johnny Lott:

Just as with other types of abuse, there are many different forms. I tried to give examples in the President’s Message. Here are some major questions to address when thinking about what mathematical abuse is: (1) Is the student placed in an inappropriate position or stance because of actions being taken? (2) Is the student harmed physically or psychologically as a result of actions taken? A good thing to consider is if you were in the student’s position, would you consider your treatment as abusive?

Question from:
Detroit, Michigan

I may not be at my desk tomorrow to chat with you. I just want to express my total agreement with your views.

I suggest that the mathematics curriculum be reviewed and reduced for each grade level. This will allow the math teachers more time to work with all the students until they get it! Every normal child can learn math, all things being equal. This of course, will be easier with a reduced class size.

Johnny Lott:

Curriculum should always be reviewed and considered for change. If it ever becomes static, then it is probably dying.

Through all my comments in the President’s Message, I hope that I did not give the view that we should not have high expectations of all students. That was not my intent. High expectations are not necessarily abusive.

Question from:
Harleysville, Pennsylvania

How much classroom time should be spent on mathematics on middle school? I have found that the 40-minute period our school uses is not sufficient to cover both the concepts and skills outlined in state and national standards.

Johnny Lott:

This is a difficult question to answer. There are too many variables for a flat answer. Some states have provided the answer in state guidelines. One question to consider is whether math is also being done in other subjects in addition to the 40-minute period. If not, should it be?

Question from:
Strunk, Kentucky

I wonder how we as teachers can help ensure equity in the math classroom. Books say we can do it, but I wonder how many teachers actually do teach equally to all their students.

Johnny Lott:

One test is to see if we are denying access to mathematics because of our treatment of students. If so, we need to work on what we are doing and to consider how that could be changed. If families allow students to opt out of math at some point, that is one issue. If we are forcing the students out for different reasons, that is an entirely different issue. Let’s make sure that we aren’t guilty of inequities in our classrooms.

Question from:
Chicago, Illinois

In this context I was thinking if anybody considers that teachers are “abused” in perhaps the same conditions as students?

Johnny Lott:

See the next President’s Message. There are some thoughts there.

Moderator

That’s the last question we’ve received today, but we have some questions from previous chats that went unanswered. Johnny will address those earlier questions now.

Question from:
Lewistown, Pennsylvania

What is the best grade level(s) for effective intervention for students having math problems?

Johnny Lott:

There is no “best grade level” for effective intervention. It should be happening at all grade levels whenever a problem is recognized.

Question from:
Lindale, Texas

What does research say about the ability grouping of grades 6-8 students who consistently fail state mandated tests? Also, is ability grouping of lower-level students in these grades a valid practice to accelerate their learning?

Johnny Lott:

Specifically, it may be too early to have the research evidence that you seek. There is research that looks at ability grouping in general but not as specific as you mentioned. See Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst’s comment on ability grouping at the first of the summits on mathematics education sponsored by the Department of Education a little over a year ago (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/progs/mathscience
/whitehurst.html). I believe that from his remarks, the answer to your last question might be no.

Question from:
Miami, Florida

How about connecting with other math advocates such as MAA (Mathematical Association of America), AMATYC (American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges) to a common front, then lobby respective groups, funding agencies, business, and Hollywood personalities that support education (Bill Cosby, et al).

Johnny Lott:

NCTM does cooperate with MAA and AMATYC and other groups to seek funding for specific things. Just this week, a joint proposal was submitted to NSF to try to reform some of the introductory college mathematics (non-calculus) classes. We have tried to pick the areas where there were the most common interests to put our efforts. This one has come to the forefront in the last two years.

Question from:
Wichita Falls, Texas

Is it also necessary that the rhetoric of progress gets backed up with adequate ideas? Are the ideas that I have dug out of recent findings in cognitive psychology worth a look? Will we at NCTM be held accountable later for ignoring the positive impact that implementation of such ideas has had on numerous classrooms?

Johnny Lott:

Not knowing specifically which issues you refer to, I’m not sure how to respond. One thing that I am slowly learning is that we need to continue to look at a body of research to make decisions and not simply to go find a piece of research that backs a particular view. We need to get smarter in how we think in mathematics education.

Moderator

Thank you all for your questions and participation in today’s chat. The next online chat with President Johnny Lott will be announced on the NCTM home page.

Johnny Lott:

Thank you for participating in today’s chat. This was a challenging column for me to write, and your questions were equally challenging. I appreciate talking with you and look forward to the January chat. Have great holidays.

Editor's Note: NCTM moderators retain editorial control over online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts. The moderator and host may decline to answer questions.

Online Chat Transcript-December 11, 2003Online Chat Transcript-December 11, 2003Online Chat Transcript-December 11, 2003Online Chat Transcript-April 14, 2004Online Chat Transcript-December 11, 2003

Your feedback is important! Comments or concerns regarding the content of this page may be sent to nctm@nctm.org. Thank you.