Fixing Middle School Science and Math

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Jay Mathews wrote a challenging column, “Even Our Best Kids Lag in Math — Middle Schools to Blame,” in the Washington Post Online (11.10.10). In it, he discusses a study by Eric A. Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson, of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and Ludger Woessmann, an economist from the University of Munich. The article suggests that our students learn very little science and math in middle school and that we should raise our middle school science and math standards. Mathews also suggests that middle school math and science teaching may have to be improved as well.

Middle school (grades 6-8, ages roughly 11-13) is an important transitional period in young people’s lives. Because of problems with discipline and just getting students to pay attention, efforts to create substantive learning in math and science have slackened according to Mathews.

His evidence comes from PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. Whereas students from the best scoring countries attain an accomplished level of 20% or more on the assessment, only 6% of U.S. students reach this level. Even if you only consider white students and at least one college-educated parent, the rate remains low at 10.3%. Almost all educators agree that this rate bodes ill for our future.

What’s the answer? Mathews lobbies for better teaching and higher standards in middle school. I believe that he’s chosen his language poorly. Middle school math teachers are already working their tails off, as one protested in a response. If you’re working as hard as possible but pushing in the wrong direction, the amount of effort doesn’t matter. Higher standards won’t help either because they’ll just result in more failure.

We must have a different direction in which to push in middle school math and science. I happen to believe that the phrase “math and science” holds a part of the answer. I also believe that no single magic bullet will solve our problems. After the memorization math of primary grades, middle school students find themselves learning ever more abstract mathematics concepts and must either memorize them or find another way to incorporate them into their knowledge base. Math concepts that are memorized don’t “stick.” They last long enough to pass the next test.

In the next grade, students must spend close to half of the year reviewing and renewing those memorized math concepts. Then, they move slowly ahead into new territory. Mathews makes a good point when he says that little is learned (as opposed to taught) in middle schools. Exactly how little (or much) is up for debate, surely. However, the PISA results clearly show that it’s not enough.

I think that returning to the roots of mathematics may help. Mathematics did not always stand alone as a topic of investigation for its own sake. It was a tool for people to accomplish things, to get work done. Mathematics made sense when you used it every day.

I propose that middle school mathematics use two related ideas to improve outcomes. The first already has found its way into many curricula: real-world applications. This approach focuses on relevancy. Students should be using mathematics to solve problems that have something to do with their everyday lives. Sporting statistics is one such area. Energy conservation is another.

However, I don’t think that’s enough. I’d like to see the middle school science courses focus on investigation instead of words, formulas, and procedures. Analyzing the data generated will, if well planned, create many opportunities to learn mathematics. Science involves exploration and discovery. Young people can relate well to that.

If mathematics were recast as a tool for practical use and for exploration and discovery, then the concepts may “stick.” That would be much better than teaching mathematics as just a bunch of symbols and procedures. It might even help us get out of the ditch we’re in and would be a much finer approach than the brute force memorization still practiced in many Asian countries and, in somewhat subtler form, here in America.

Technology can help greatly in this endeavor, but that’s a topic best dealt with in another article.

3 Responses

  1. I attended the National Middle School Conference for the first time, It was held in Baltimore , Maryland. I don’t know if the reporter attended the conference, but the conference seemed to be more realistic about the population of children and there was a track of problem areas, imagine that. You could weigh in on the problems of the disaffected youth, dropouts, teen suicide .. those kinds of topics. There were even motivational speakers who spoke to the problems of the youth of today.

    Quite a difference in the usual conversations about Superman. It has been a while since my dad used to tell his middle school stories at the dinner table.

    Middle school people tend to be more realistic about the problem of teaching anything.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. What is now called Trends in International Math and Science was originally called the Third International Math and Science Survey (TIMSS), and I well remember its 1999 report and the discussions that surrounded it. The survey found that the mediocre math results could be traced to the way we teach the subject. It found that in comparison to the top-performing countries (like Singapore), we teach a lot of ground. An average American 8th grader was taught nearly 5 times as many topics as an average Singapore 8th grader. Obviously, with that discrepancy, we could not possibly go into as much depth as they did.

    That depth focused on practical application of math concepts. Students in Singapore spent a lot of time applying the fewer concepts they were given, while American students skimmed over the top of many topics, learning next to nothing.

    Does any of this sound like anything in Harry’s article?

    Harry is right to differentiate between teaching and learning. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago, one that I used to use in presentations. In it, a boy tells his friend that he had taught his dog to talk. Incredulous, his friend tries to talk to the dog, getting only a “woof” in response. When he says that the dog can’t talk, the first boy says, “I said I taught him how to talk. I didn’t say he learned it.”

    I have been hearing the same arguments from math experts for more than a decade now. “Teach fewer topics, and teach them in depth, with practical application!” they shout. But no one listens.

    A few years ago, the Bush administration set up the National Math Panel to study math education and make recommendations. As they did with the National Reading Council, they placed very strict restrictions on the kind of research they could use, allowing them only to use the kinds of studies that are rarely used in educational research. The panel report is fascinating in regard to this subject, for they pretty much say they would have liked to do a comparison between the two approaches, but they were prevented from doing so by the research limitations imposed upon them by the administration.

    (For those of you with long memories, the Reading Panel was pretty much restricted to studies that showed the superiority of a strict phonics approach and was not allowed to use the studies that showed anything different.)

    I have concluded that we are not allowed to change the way we teach math, the way that experts know is better, for a variety of reasons, chief of which is political. I assure you that it would not be possible to switch to this type of instruction anywhere I know, because lessening the number of topics taught each year is “dumbing down the curriculum,” and we can’t do that–we have to catch up with the kids from Singapore who are doing so much better than us.

  3. I went, was invited to the Nation Math Panel. There was not a lot of knowledge in the group. I asked a few questions and they sat people at my table because I guess I was politically incorrect. They had ONE point of view and their knowledge of math and the history of math education in the group was VERY limited. A waste of taxpayer money.. and my time. Bonnie

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