Sunday, July 18, 2010

Microsoft, The Gates Foundation, and Math Education: A Depressing Tale


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 Puget Sound region in the Microsoft Math Partnership (MMP). As part of the partnership, Microsoft is donating $6 million over three years. It is well known that the UW College of Education promotes demonstrably failing reform or discovery math approaches (http://education.washington.edu/research/rtm_07/index.html) and it is clear from the MMP website that this initiative follows that failed direction (http://www.microsoftmathpartnership.org/). Read the summary of the first two years’ efforts (http://www.microsoftmathpartnership.org/partnereval.php).One of the main aspects of their work is hiring math "coaches" who “are more confident in the expectations for their work with teachers on instructional practice and are starting to create collaborative teacher teams around common goals.”

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 Washington State math standards that we have worked so hard for. And weaker than those of California, Indiana, and other states with world-class standards.

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 U.S. standards with those of leading nations, no support of randomized studies of the effectiveness of various math instruction approaches. Just a lot eduspeak. As a scientist accustomed to rigorous research with solid statistics, it is maddening.

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.

22 comments:

The Moyes and Their Toys said...

Thank you for your constant focus on this issue...we have 2 sons in the Issaquah SD. Everyday Math is a joke...I would like to get my hands on the idiot who thought this "spiraling" curriculum was a good idea. We have voiced our concerns to the teachers (a few of whom agree) and principal. Our PTA purchased "Fast Math" computer program, and we sent our (then)3rd grader before school once a week so that he could learn his multiplication tables, as rote memorization is not part of this curriculum. "Everyday Math" and "Discovery Math" are a DISASTER! I hope the Gates Foundation can change course and help influence the school districts that are beholden to this terrible curriculum.

lucia said...

I can tell the exact same tale from Newton, MA. Forget about research or evaluation - our math curriculum changes with the latest educational theory.

We have new math coaches, but no analysis of our curriculum (Everyday Math)and a math curriculum coordinator who sells these math coaches to our school board using state testing data from students who've teachers weren't coached!

Our district's latest new theories for improving math are "Habits of Mind" and "Writing to Learn Math". Any research to support either theory - of course not - but they get funded nonetheless.

Rudy said...

Cliff, what do you think of this project: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/jerrylarge/2012391429_jdl19.html.

rjwriter said...

As the saying goes "The road to H&## is paved with good intentions. Gates may mean well but he has already caused a huge amount of harm. Our district spent over $60 million remodeling one high school and building a new one based the Gates small school initiative. Unfortunately Gates abandoned this direction before the schools were even finished. Good intentions can have disastrous consequences.

Gates admits that he knows nothing about teaching. Unfortunately our system trusts money more than common sense.

LT said...

I am not so sure Mr. Gates and his foundations are off track. That is, off the path they want to be on.

Mr. Gates is a strong supporter of RttT, charter schools and a business model for education. He is in favor of work force boards.

I think his support for weakened math standards and indoctrination schools is right on target; his target. He won't be looking to the US pool of graduates to provide innovation for Microsoft. He will be looking to the far East.

I think we need to move away from the Gates Foundation and the like as solutions. They are and will continue to do more of what we call harm and educators call reform.

dan dempsey said...

It is interesting that the MMP has an aversion to solid evidence. It seems that USA leaders are more interested in increased spending than efficient and effective learning.

The UW CoE has proven they are unable to produce positive results in Mathematics. Cleveland High School received high dollar NSF project help from UW for three years fall 2006 through spring 2009. The result was Cleveland based largely on that three year performance was classified as one of 47 failing schools in the state.

Just what we DO NOT need Gates Foundation follows the losers and attempts to motivate us to do so as well.

Increased spending may raise Texas Instruments, and Dell stock prices but it is not increasing achievement.

NO THANKS

Must read blogs said...

I don't know about what Microsoft has for their standards but at MY home my kids have to know how to read write and do math.
My 8yo is learning her times tables this summer and I using 'Touch Math' and 'Kumon'so she will be ready to jump right in and be ready when school starts.
Parents have to get in the face of the district and DEMAND their children be taught a curriculum of math that can be understood.

kprugman said...

I agree with LT -

Gates (Microsoft) is getting exactly what they want - an untrained workforce that will work for lower wages. Why pay higher wages, when corporations can get the same person from another country for a tenth the cost of supporting an American and in this economy why not be a philanthropist - its easier to be a non-profit than appease shareholders.


The banks have bled this country dry of all its capital and gone off to find the other end of the financial rainbow. Its not going to make much sense to set high prices on homes if no one can afford to buy one. And wouldn't the US devalue its own currency to wipe out all its foreign obligations? N. Korea has devalued its currency at least six times - it is just a matter of time.

Big Wave said...

Dr Mass: Thank-you again for keeping us informed. Our twins enter first grade this year, selected for advanced math education - because all through their kindergarten, I taught them first grade math to California standards. This year, I'll do the same. Come November, I'm voting against our current school board member who cares little about this issue.

Elizabeth said...

When I was teaching a community college algebra class, one student told me, "I only need to get a D-. I won't need algebra. I will only be teaching the early grades." I was appalled. The first place we fall down is the grade school teachers' own low math ability.

I suggest we: 1) require math competence for primary teachers; and 2) as a stop-gap measure, hire a math expert in every grade school to teach math and to help the current teachers improve both their math lessons and their own math competencies.

Elizabeth said...

When I was teaching a community college algebra class, one student told me, "I only need to get a D-. I won't need algebra. I will only be teaching the early grades." I was appalled. The first place we fall down is the grade school teachers' low math ability.

I suggest we: 1) require math competence for primary teachers; and 2) as a stop-gap measure, hire a math expert in every grade school to teach math and to help the current teachers improve both their math lessons and their own math competencies.

Robby said...

On a more weather related note... I was wondering about the altitude of these low morning clouds and fog we've been having. Would it be possible to hike up above them?

reedmom said...

Cliff,
I agree with most of what you say in this blog, but I don't agree that math coaches are an insult to teachers. After 12 years on a public school board and doing a good bit of research (including thankfully keeping Everyday Math out of our district), I discovered how woefully negligent most of the ed schools are in preparing teachers for math education especially at the elementary level. Many elementary teachers only have one math course in college "Teaching Elementary Math". A few might take Algebra I.
I learned by reading folks like Liping Ma how important it is in math education for the teacher to have a deep understanding of math, even if they are only teaching the early grades. I think the right math coach could be very helpful to elementary teachers who have not had the math background they need. But more important would be to fix these ed schools.

reedmom said...

Cliff,
I agree with most of what you say in this blog, but I don't agree that math coaches are an insult to teachers. After 12 years on a public school board and doing a good bit of research (including thankfully keeping Everyday Math out of our district), I discovered how woefully negligent most of the ed schools are in preparing teachers for math education especially at the elementary level. Many elementary teachers only have one math course in college "Teaching Elementary Math". A few might take Algebra I.
I learned by reading folks like Liping Ma how important it is in math education for the teacher to have a deep understanding of math, even if they are only teaching the early grades. I think the right math coach could be very helpful to elementary teachers who have not had the math background they need. But more important would be to fix these ed schools.

Rosie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kprugman said...

The ed schools serve two purposes - training teachers and evaluating curriculum. They depend on student enrollment and fulfilling grants for their success. And that is where the model for math reform is flawed. New teachers should not be used as the test sites for new units, yet these are classrooms that get used as labs for new curriculum. There are only three curriculum that I know about that were built bottom-up, that is from the students' perspective and these were Singapore Math, Challenging Mathematics (Quebec), and College Prepatory Math. In each case, they were adopted by districts because they were popular with students and the majority of the population of students spoke a home language other than what was spoken in school. In each case the students were more successful than their peers who were being educated with one of the DOE's exemplary textbooks.

Heidi said...

I am a former teacher from Alpine School District in Utah and we have been "victimized" by Discovery/Investigations math. Because there was such an outcry from parents they decided to go a different direction. But as with educational "research", a change in direction means a new name - Balanced Math is the new buzz word. Simply put it is discovery math with the addition of learning math facts. Kind of like balanced literacy which is whole language with phonics. It's kind of like mixing oil and water...it doesn't work.

dan dempsey said...

Look and see how Gates bribes American Education.

If it wasn't education such actions would likely be called racketeering.

kprugman said...

District's aren't really designed to be run like startups - How would like to have a clause in your contract that said - if your school doesn't make AYP we'll pull your funding and if you don't listen to us, we'll pull your funding.

That's called two things - a bust and a bind.

Reminds me of a Black vise deck, the three free bolts, the most efficient, one-turn damage source in Magical history especially when it was backed up with some Howling Mines, giving young wizards a constant source of fire for attacking creatures and damaging players.

teacherman2 said...

I have yet to see any math curriculum serve as a panacea for all math learning ills. Excellent teachers always find ways to teach well, despite deficiencies in materials. Sometimes, that means behaving subversively, and working around district mandates. Lake Washington School District has just adopted enVision, and I've looked at it as my wife teaches summer school, helping her to get started using it. It seems to move away, somewhat, from the extremely constructivist curricula of the past, including more emphasis on algorithms. It is very data-driven, attempting to adjust teaching based on student progress. We'll have to see if the practice fulfills the expectation!

kprugman said...

Designing a math or science curriculum is more like an engineering problem - nothing is close to ideal. However, an engineer would not overlook the best solution. What is the purpose of evaluating textbooks, when everyone knows the very best book isn't even being considered? In Singapore, the textbooks were reverse-engineered.

As an ultimate goal and understanding the need to educate student's who's home language was not English, the Ministry of Education determined what was a necessary education for hs students entering an engineering profession.

The US strategy was completely different. Psychologists looked at the development of children and came up with a totally different kind of program based on what was 'age' appropriate. They chose algorithms that were 'developmentally' appropriate for all children.

The education psychologists, like Michael, might take personal offense, but if the goal of US education had been to produce generations of talented entrepreneurs who could create and describe the occupations of future Americans, the publishers would have created a math series that looked like Singapore.

kprugman said...

As I reason through this more, I'm beginning to see the nuances of what American 'educators' meant by 'all students'.

If the students were limited english speakers they focused on methodology, like socratic or inquiry methods, such as Houston or Los Angeles. In cities, like Boston and Chicago, the focus was on the actual algorithms themselves.

The authors' task was to make the textbooks, so unique, that they could not be replaced with traditional textbooks. So textbooks for older students included graphing calculators, while textbooks like Everyday focused on non-traditional algorithms.

Like doctors, all US curriculum purveyors must take a hypocratic oath before putting their quill to paper.