Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Games Ideologues Play

In a 2006 article for the Hoover Institution, Barry Garelick wrote:

"It was another body blow to education. In December 2004, media outlets across the country were abuzz with the news of the just-released results of the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests. Once again despite highly publicized efforts to reform American math education(some might say BECAUSE of the reform efforts) over the past two decades, the United States did little better than average." ["Miracle Math" by Barry Garelick, EDUCATION NEXT, Fall 2006 (vol. 6, no. 4)].

This example of Mr. Garelick's purple prose, replete with "body blows," and the laughable image of media outlets buzzing over ANY education-related item, is a masterful piece of conservative propagandizing in which he clearly sets the groundwork for a classic Hoover Institution tactic: having it both ways.

You see, in 2006, Mr. Garelick was all abuzz, if no one else was, about the shortcomings of U.S. mathematics achievement as measured by TIMSS, with the blame neatly dropped on US reform efforts (and you know who THAT means) of "the past two decades." Hmm, now. He's writing in 2006, so these efforts have been going on since 1986. . .

Quick: ignoring the question of what percentage of U.S. public school classrooms are now using or have exclusively used for the past eleven years since his piece appeared what he and the rest of us would agree are "reform" methods AND materials, what are the numbers for 1986-1996? Pinning the blame on all that alleged failure for twenty years on programs that didn't even exist in 1986 is pretty neat. But it gets better.

Because Barry Garelick argues in Sunday's EdNews.org in a piece entitled, "It Works for Me: An Exploration of 'Traditional Math' Part 1" that actually we HAVEN'T been failing. And why not? Well, he cites The Way We Were?: The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement, a book by one of the best and most liberal-minded education reporters in the country, Richard Rothstein, to argue what many folks, most notably Gerald Bracey, have been pointing out for years: the sky isn't falling, or at least not in general, when it comes to US education.

But Mr. Garelick, of course, wants it both ways.

Instead of an honest assessment of the successes AND shortcomings of traditional instruction in mathematics in this country (let alone something similar for progressive mathematics programs and methods), Mr. Garelick is offering a completely skewed version of reality in which all failures are BECAUSE of reform efforts, whether they even were in existence, let alone implemented, while all successes are due to the good old traditional instructional methods of his youth. Or maybe due to Singapore Math. I'm not completely clear on his notions of causality.

In either event, this is remarkable sophistry on his part. Because there's only one undeniable thing in this debate, and that is that there were no NCTM-style reforms going on to any discernible extent prior to 1986 (and pretty much prior to the mid-1990s, if in fact they are truly the dominant texts and methods of today and the past dozen years or so, a very doubtful proposition in itself), but the instructional methods through the mid-1980s were indeed Mr. Garelick's beloved "traditional" teaching.

So we're asked to believe: a) all was well, or nearly so, up until 19___ (I fear to complete the date, because whatever is put there will be so ludicrous that I may be struck dead for writing it even as a hypothetical or belief of someone else); b) we went down the slippery slope in 1986 or so; c) but, see, the sky wasn't really falling after all; d) except that it was, in 2006; e) but it wasn't, in 2007; f) and anyway, if it wasn't traditional methods that had us all rosy-cheeked and healthy in mathematical competence up until that 19___ year, but Singapore Math is a MIRACLE that will bring us all back to health again; g) and all this regardless of whether Singapore Math is actually a diverse set of materials and methods, that there is no clear picture of what methods it allows or proscribes, and despite the fact that the US has so little in common with Singapore (4 million people, ethnically homogeneous by comparison, a highly rigid, restrictive form of government, and a level of affluence that any US politician would KILL to be able to brag about as TYPICAL of his constituents), that it's just a tad difficult to believe that some books alone are going to save us. And this is NOT coming from a negative view of Singapore Math. Far from it. It's coming from a sense that Mr. Garelick is not an educator, but rather an ideologue, that he is like other Hoover Institution folks in his dedication to conservative views of education and education policy, that he is playing a dishonest rhetorical game, and finally that not even Singaporeans are so naive (or dishonest) as to believe that they have all, or even most, of the answers to teaching and learning mathematics.

But don't expect moderation from Mr. Garelick. Or modest claims. Or honesty. Just expect propaganda, trying to have it both ways, trashing NCTM, NSF, and any and all reform ideas and methods (even when they are strikingly similar to what people do in Singapore). Don't expect him to mention that it's difficult to find an Asian mathematics educator who comes to the US who isn't interested in learning from us and isn't critical of the shortcomings in their own countries methods, materials, and accomplishments.

No, from the Mathematically Correct/HOLD and right-wing think-tank groups that Mr. Garelick represents, there are only Singapore Math "miracles," wonderful, golden days of traditional instruction that worked for pretty much everyone, and horrible failures and stupid ideas, books, and practices from progressive educators, the NSF, and NCTM. It may be fun and easy to live in a fantasy world in which things are either black or white, wonderful or horrid, perfect or completely flawed, but unfortunately, US educators have to work in the real world, with real kids, in real communities, with real poverty, real malnutrition, real parental ignorance, real abuse of kids, real drug and substance abuse, real crime, real ethnic and religious conflict and hatred, and a host of other challenges. These are not excuses: they are simply part of reality. We have that reality and the many professionals working with it and doing research to try to improve the quality, depth and effectiveness of mathematics teaching and learning, and then we have Mr. Garelick and the Mathematically Correct/HOLD/Hoover folks with their simplistic viewpoints, propaganda, rejection of research, phony talk of miracle cures, and even in the case of one outspoken former member of NYC-HOLD, a person so cowardly he refuses to use his real name on the internet, the assertion that there are no open questions about mathematics pedagogy.

Yes, the cartoon at the top of this post pretty much says it all.

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