Tired of Low GHS Math Scores? Turn to the Comics

Substitute teacher Alan L. Johnson wrote in his letter to the
editor Nov. 19 that he is tired of having people blame the math
department at Gilroy High School for the low math scores at that
institution. He is also tired of reading stories in The Dispatch
about low math scores.
Substitute teacher Alan L. Johnson wrote in his letter to the editor Nov. 19 that he is tired of having people blame the math department at Gilroy High School for the low math scores at that institution. He is also tired of reading stories in The Dispatch about low math scores.

Mr. Johnson offers several hypotheses about why GHS students are scoring worse than students across the county and across the state. I agree with one: ‘twould be a far, far better thing if GHS math classes met daily for 60 or 70 minutes rather than the current practice of meeting every other day for 118 minutes.

The rest of his analysis is, in my opinion, hogwash.

“Math taught in today’s elementary and middle school classroom is the same math taught in the 60’s. 1 + 1 still equals 2 …”

Mr. Johnson confuses math and the teaching of math. Mathematics is the same, but the methodology of teaching it has changed dramatically since the ’50s even as to the name. In the ’50s, grammar school students were taught arithmetic.

In the ’60s, new math was introduced. To the surprise of the professional educators who spearheaded the program, it eventually became clear that if you take time away from drilling the multiplication tables, and use that time to try to teach prepubescent children the associative and commutative properties, they get confused. They don’t learn the properties, probably because they are not cognitively ready to learn them. And they don’t learn their times tables or long division algorithm either.

In the late ’70s a brief parent-driven backlash produced the back-to-basics movement, but in the late ’80s and ’90s new, new math and fuzzy math crept onto the educational scene.

One thing that handicaps our math instruction today is that our teachers were instructed in any one of a number of math programs, but few of them ever learned arithmetic. They grew up in a state of mathematical fear and loathing. They now think that mathematical ability is something you have or not, but not something that can really be learned.

In short, though mathematics has not changed, the pedagogy of math instruction has changed and keeps changing. Usually the changes are mere fads. Seldom do the changes serve to impart mathematical knowledge and reasoning to students. I would place today’s latest mantras of “higher order thinking” and “collaboration” in the fad category.

The bulk of Mr. Johnson’s column attempts to place the blame for low GHS math scores somewhere other than the GHS math department.

He tries to blame the student-teacher ratio. Sorry, Mr. Johnson, the ratio is the same in Cupertino, and was worse in the ’50s at the height of the baby boom.

He blames the students and the parents, separately and jointly. Sorry. The students are the same, biologically speaking, as any other students, across the county, across the state, and across the decades. They have the same distribution of talents and proclivities as students anytime and anywhere.

The parents were, mostly, educated in public schools. Better not throw stones at parents; those schoolhouse walls are mighty transparent and brittle.

Finally, Mr. Johnson blames the middle and elementary schools for allowing children to move on to high school who have not mastered their fourth-grade math skills. True, O king. Please note, however, that GUSD is responsible for the elementary schools as well as the high school. It is entirely proper to air concerns about poor math scores at a GUSD board meeting.

To its credit, GHS has instituted two improvements in its math program. GHS now offers several sections of pre-algebra for those students who did not master their elementary school math curriculum. And it has stiffened the requirements for passing into the next higher class; no one will get into a higher class without getting a C or better in the prerequisite, with confirmatory test scores.

Even more to its credit, GHS and GUSD are looking squarely at the problem of low math scores. They are looking at symptoms and for reasons. They are defining the problem, and that is the first step toward solving a problem.

Tired of bad math scores, Mr. Johnson? Turn to the funny pages.

Leave your comments