MATH LESSONS: BEYOND RHETORIC, STUDIES IN HIGH ACHIEVEMENT
By David Klein
Schools with low-income students tend to have low test scores. Low academic achievement, especially in mathematics, is often one of the consequences of poverty. Nevertheless, some schools beat the odds.
Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood is an example. At Bennett-Kew 51% of the students are African American, 48% are Latino, 29% are not fluent in English and 77% of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty in schools. Yet test scores at Bennett-Kew require no excuses. The average third-grader at Bennett-Kew scored at the 83rd percentile in mathematics on the most recent Stanford Achievement Test, double the score for Los Angeles Unified School District.
In the summer of 2000, the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, commissioned me to find three high-achieving, low-income schools in the Los Angeles area, and to write a report about how they teach math. That report is available from www.mathematicallycorrect.com. In addition to Bennett-Kew, the report describes William H. Kelso Elementary School, also in Inglewood, and Robert Hill Lane Elementary School in Monterey Park, part of LAUSD. Students at these outstanding schools also exhibit unusually high achievement in mathematics despite modest resources.
What accounts for the high academic achievement of these schools? Can their successes be replicated?
For starters, consider how they are alike. All three closely follow the California mathematics content standards. Direct instruction, as opposed to "student discovery," is the primary mode of instruction. All three schools focus on basic skills as prerequisites to problem solving and understanding of concepts. Calculator use is rare or nonexistent. Faculty at all three schools are well-coordinated and work together. Principals at these schools are strong leaders, and they are careful to hire dedicated teachers. The principals have found that noncredentialed teachers are sometimes better than credentialed teachers. All three schools have programs that provide remediation, and the principals closely monitor student achievement. But the most important characteristic of all three schools is that students are held to high expectations. The principals were adamant about high expectations and dismissive of excuses.
These days almost everyone uses buzzwords like "high expectations." But Nancy Ichinaga, the former principal of Bennett-Kew and now a member of the California State Board of Education, took her students beyond the rhetoric of these words to their actual substance. The same may be said for retired principal Marjorie Thompson of Kelso and principal Sue Wong of Lane Elementary.
What prevents hundreds of L.A. schools from following suit? Part of the answer is that ideology trumps common sense in LAUSD. School administrators have long believed that "learning styles" are strongly correlated with race and gender, and that "dead white male math" is just not appropriate for minority students. As a consequence, the LAUSD board decided last year to prevent its elementary schools from buying the successful but traditional math program used at Bennett-Kew, called Saxon Math. This California state-approved curriculum is also a component of the math program at Melvin Elementary School in Reseda. Melvin, an LAUSD campus, was highlighted in Gov. Gray Davis' State of the State speech for its dramatic improvement in test scores during the last two years.
So, what has LAUSD deemed appropriate for minority students? Following recommendations of the Los Angeles-based Achievement Council, LAUSD last year left hundreds of schools saddled with vacuous calculator-based, anti-arithmetic programs like MathLand, which is not even remotely aligned to the state standards upon which students are tested.
Perhaps the worst blunder is yet to come. Instead of focusing on California's standards, written by world-renowned mathematicians at Stanford University, LAUSD Supt. Roy Romer is now promoting standards from the National Center on Education and the Economy, or NCEE. These standards are inconsistent with the California standards. They are faddish, low level and incoherent. Judy Codding, a vice president of the NCEE, made no secret of her organization's hostility to California's rigorous standards when she announced at an NCEE conference, "I will fight to see that California math standards are not implemented in the classroom."
She might succeed. If teachers are forced to serve two contradictory masters, the high-caliber California standards and the dubious NCEE standards, the result will be more confusion and misdirection. Although LAUSD deserves some praise for recent steps to purchase state-approved textbooks, school board members should put an end to the continual bombardment of students and teachers with the latest education fads. It is far more constructive to maintain clarity of purpose, and to join successful schools that follow the state standards.
David Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Mathematics at Cal State Northridge
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times