A Liberal Magazine Just Spilled the Beans about K-12 Education

This upscale progressive magazine ran a super-long, super-detailed article titled "The Math Revolution."  It basically wanted to proclaim the happy news that extraordinary things are  taking place in American education.

The Atlantic fell all over itself with enthusiasm.  You would reasonably suppose that some fresh winds were blowing, and students in America would actually know how to add and subtract with competence, and maybe even multiply and divide efficiently.

What else does the word "revolution" suggest but wonderful sweeping change?  At last, at long last, our public schools will redeem themselves and begin to turn out little math experts.

Then the writer gave it away: "The students are being produced by a new pedagogical ecosystem – almost entirely extracurricular – that has developed online and in the country's rich coastal cities and tech meccas."


Please savor the words "almost entirely extracurricular."  In other words, these superior, successful math students are not in essence attending American public schools.  They are going outside of American public schools, to something separate, uncontaminated, and therefore superior.

And why would that be necessary?  Because American public schools, for many decades, have been a killing field for mathematical achievement.  John Saxon became a legend in the late 1980s for his valiant effort to create instruction that would replace the nonsense epidemic in the schools.  The Education Establishment resisted Saxon with all of its considerable resources.  These officials had come up with New Math circa 1964 and then Reform Math after 1985.  All those bad, and very unpopular, approaches have modulated into Common Core Math.  All bunk according to many analysts, but that doesn't mean our Education Establishment willingly lets a smidgen of it go.

Many varieties of "Reform" instruction, which seems to have failure built in, have created the sterile environment that forced brainy kids to go "extracurricular."  Typically, that means tutors, math camps, online resources, anywhere they can get the real stuff.  The point is, they're not getting it in their local public school.

Please note: the Atlantic article is focused on the best and cleverest students.  Indeed, they are so very clever that they outwitted the Education Establishment, and beguiled the Atlantic Monthly into telling the truth about K-12.

It has always seemed to me that the Atlantic Monthly is obliviously liberal.  Do they even know what they've done?  Namely, they revealed that official experts have been running a con for all these decades.  This con has been, in general, so successful that highly motivated students must find or create an entirely separate school system.

It's worth asking: how does the Education Establishment do such a bad job?  Can we find a common denominator among dozens of separate programs over dozens of years?  Yes, and here is the perennial gimmick: to whatever degree possible, mix in complexity and confusion.  Typically, that means teaching children an oddball algorithm that is hard to learn and difficult to do.  Or teach three different ways to do the same sort of problem.  For all but advanced students, learning to do the one best method automatically is ideal.  Our Education Establishment constantly belittles that idea.  Reform Math actually forbade "mastery."  Instead, teachers to "spiral" from one half-mastered method to the next.  Every three or four days, the teacher spirals onward to new ground.  If you want guaranteed failure, that's the gimmick to use.

Recently, a schoolteacher bragged to me about how wonderful Common Core is.  One of her enclosures contained the phrase "number model."  I submit to you that this ugly jargon can stand as a symbol for the whole mess.  Nobody needs this excrescence.

Can you guess what a  "number model" is?  Part of the irony here is that the Education Establishment tries to make children jump ahead to the advanced or expert way, so the easy ways can be deliberately passed over.  In this case, they keep children from using the proper, universally embraced terminology – i.e., "equation."  This would be a case where the adult terminology is perfect.  Learning that one side of an equation has to be the same as the other is a great platform for most of mathematics.  "Number model" is a marker that pretenders are in the building.  "Number model" tells us these people will stoop to anything.  Debased language reveals a debased field.

One of the biggest subjects in education now is STEM and the need for renewed attention to STEM subjects.  Often the emphasis is on doing more in middle school and high school.  By that time, however, many children have learned to detest and fear STEM subjects.  A major theme in John Saxon's battle with the Education Establishment was that their methods stop children from pursuing anything more advanced, whereas students who took Saxon Math were much more likely to study calculus, chemistry, physics, and so on.

The lesson is very plain.  Elementary arithmetic is the gateway to later success.  Children do need to start with the elemental and proceed to the more complex.  Children need to memorize the multiplication table.  They need their "math facts."  They need to master a lot of simple stuff so they feel confident about what comes next.  Reform Math and Common Core Math show how not to do it.  The public schools show how not to do it.  That's what the Atlantic Monthly is trying to tell us.

If math were taught efficiently at each level from K to 12, you would see much higher NAEP scores and much greater entry into STEM subjects, and students would not need an extracurricular alternative.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites Improve-Education.org.  (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.)