What could be more depressing than a well-meaning corporation and a closely associated foundation, concerned about the quality of math education in our nation, applying a large amount of resources that are not only wasted, but generally have exactly the opposite effects that they want?
That is the sad tale of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
To quote Brad Smith, a senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft:
"We're very concerned about the possibility that our kids are falling behind in areas like math and science," he said. "We urgently need to tackle this as a region, as well as a state and as a country ... but it's not a problem that's impossible to solve."
The Gates Foundation web site is full of similar sentiments.
These folks have good intentions. But they are making major errors and working against their own and the nation’s interests.
For example. Microsoft has teamed up with the University of Washington College of Education and eight school districts in the
Math coaches are big part of the reform/discovery math approach. Since reform math ideas generally don’t work, they have concluded that teachers need the help of “coaches.” In my mind this is kind of insulting to professional teachers.
The MMP website says virtually nothing about the key deficiencies in math education: poor curricula and standards. There is a lot of talk about the importance of 8th grade algebra as a “gatekeeper,” but what exactly should students know BEFORE and AFTER they take this class? You won't find the answer at the MMP website. Amazingly, the latest MMP annual evaluation shows district math WASL scores in the years before and after this program, somehow implying their program had a positive influence. How can they claim that this program had ANY positive influence on student scores ? No randomized studies are performed. But this is classic educational research, which is really no research at all. Interestingly, most of the districts in the Microsoft initiative have been using weak Discovery Math approaches (where students are not provided direct instruction, but are expected to discover math principles on their own with heavy use of calculators). Why don't the Microsoft folks see that with a weak curriculum all the coaches in the world won't help?
Now, what about the Gates Foundation? They have loads of money but are highly dependent on advisers and staff taken from the failing educational bureaucracy…and are making and remaking serious mistakes. Some of you may have heard of their initiative to improve high schools by breaking large ones into smaller academies. After spending hundreds of millions dollars on this initiative (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38282806/ns/business-bloomberg_businessweek/), it has proven to be a failure. Even Bill Gates says so.
Now they are working intensely with the Obama administration on national math standards (“Common Core”). Check out their website on this subject: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/foundationnotes/Pages/vicki-phillips-100603-common-state-standards.aspx.
Now perhaps national math standards could be a good thing if they were strong, comparable to nations that lead the world in the math competency of their students. But the current version of the U.S. Dept of Education’s Common Core math standards is not strong. In fact, they are far weaker than the new
Academic standards should clearly and coherently define the course-by-course content students should know after taking that course. Instead, the common core high school math standards only provide a general summary of which subjects a high school student should master.
A careful examination of the Common Core standards reveals huge gaps in key topics.Although the Common Core standards include the use of standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, they are one year too late, and do not require division until the 6th grade. There are huge gaps in important topics such as the mastery of fractions. Common denominator is mentioned only once in the standards and students are never explicitly required to find one I could give you a dozen more examples, but you get the message.
Because the Common Core lacks specificity and structure they are essentially useless for developing a reliable and valid assessment. States are lining up to join the Common Core bandwagon for only one reason—the huge purse the Dept of Education will divide among Common Core participants.
When you check out the Gates foundation site there is little discussion of the importance of good curricula and books. No objective comparison of
The key to turning the current math education debacle around is to adopt good, coherent standards modeled on the top performing nations in mathematics; adopt good curricula, based on the standards, using research-backed teaching methods; and adopt assessments, also based on the standards, that will allow us to ensure our students are progressing as planned. Next in importance are well-trained teachers, who know their subject. Instead of paying for math coaches, we should be paying for ongoing education for teachers to increase their knowledge in the subjects they are teaching. And we need a change in the educational bureaucracy in which REAL research, guided by sound statistical design, helps guide the discipline. Perhaps one day, Microsoft and the Gates Foundation will not be guided by the latest unfounded trends in the failing educational bureaucracy fostered by the weak education schools of our nation. The problem CAN be turned around, but a rigorous, rational course is required.
Good intentions are important, but effective actions are what really count.