Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 23 2011

My math curriculum is dumb. And so is my district.

OK, maybe the title of this post is a little harsh. But let me explain.

As a first by the way, teacher vocab for the uninitiated: aligned. Aligned means that the stuff you teach, the practice students do, and the preparation they have matches up to what they will be expected to do or know. For example, if your lesson aligns to the curriculum test, the problems your kids practice will be at the same level of difficulty and presentation as the ones they’ll have to do on the test. If your curriculum aligns to state standards, the stuff it tells you to teach and the resources it gives you match up to state tests and standards.

I have a math curriculum, which is generally thought to be OK. The one good thing it does is that the chapter tests from this curriculum are pretty well aligned to the NMSBA, our state test (don’t get me started on whether the NMSBA aligns with useful skills). But what I am figuring out, the more I try to avoid reinventing the wheel and start using the stuff my curriculum gives me, is that the CHAPTERS in this curriculum are not aligned to the CHAPTER TESTS. What the &*@(#&@#$%^%?

The problem is that the NMSBA is almost entirely word-problem based, which is already really hard for my ELL kiddos. All I can guess is that the lovely people at Harcourt looked at the NMSBA and said, we can do that! And they made lovely NMSBA-aligned chapter tests. But then they looked at their curriculum and said, oh, gee, there aren’t any word problems in here. And then they left it at that. Either they’re really dumb and didn’t bother to check that the material in the chapter sets kids up to succeed on the chapter test, or they’re really evil and don’t care that my kids can understand all the material in the chapter and fail the chapter test because their chapter didn’t prepare them to apply the Distributive Property to word problems.

What’s really super dumb, though, is my district and their required weekly tests. Because I’m pretty sure they just looked at the chapter titles and made their own problems up without ever looking at what or how the chapter teaches. For example, the chapter entitled 2-Digit Multiplication builds from stuff like 23 x 5 up to 235 x 5 and 2,358 x 5, and then next chapter they go to 23 x 54. They also have Multiplication Patterns, which means multiplying by multiples of 10 and finding base equations to help with things like 120 x 40 (12 x 4, then add two zeros).

My district, in their infinite wisdom, decided 2-Digit Multiplication and Multiplication Patterns meant my kids should be able to do 58 x 77, and then find the missing number in a pattern that goes 42, ___, 70, 84. Two-digit by two-digit multiplication is a whole different ball game than two by one, and kids aren’t supposed to know 14 times tables anyway. Also they included this word problem to count for 30% of the test grade:

“Eighty-seven students were passing around a petition to stop the historical building from being demolished. The city required that 800 signatures be collected for the city council to review the petition. Each student collected 92 signatures. Were the required number of signatures collected?”

Forget that my kids haven’t seen word problems, if I follow the curriculum. They don’t know what a petition is. They don’t know what demolished is. Not all of them will be able to figure out the word historical because it looks different from history, even though they’re related. They won’t know what a council is, and the excessive wordiness will confuse them. I suspect the people who write district tests have never met a 9-year-old.

Here would be a fair word problem:

“Students were signing up for a basketball tournament. 87 kids collected names. Each kid collected 92 names. They can only have a tournament if they have more than 800 names. Can they have a tournament?”

The thing is, I’ve only been doing this for two months. And even I know that the way these things are put together is crap that will lead to my kids failing unless I do an enormous amount of work developing all my own word problems for them to practice with, and then fudging the way I present the district test so they have half a clue about what they’re supposed to do. Which, of course, I will. But many teachers won’t, because they have things like spouses and kids and lives and whatnot to spend time on that I do not. Whereas if we’d put things together in the right way the first time and like, I don’t know, maybe TALKED to each other, we could all be happy and successful.

So the question is, is there some master plan I don’t see because I’m new at this? Because if not, why are all the experts who put these things together being dumb?

4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure an “expert” put your curriculum together. I’m not convinced that people who design curriculum for major publishing companies think about how students learn as much as how they sell books.

    I’m not very up on elementary math curricula but I’d go to the TFANET community for elementary teachers and see if you can find a curriculum that is better suited to your kids and adopt that secretly.
    After two months of teaching it’s kind of absurd to expect you to know how elementary students develop understandings. There is a lot of research on how they learn and much of it is not at all obvious without a lot of time spent studying it.

    Good luck, and you are not crazy to notice flaws in math ed!

  2. MeghanK

    I’m having the same problem you’re having – I’m making and finding my own word problems. I’m having to do it because I’m teaching first grade and the problems in the book consistently use words my kids haven’t learned yet. I had an idea. I’ll type word problems into an Excel spreadsheet, and instead of typing the numbers, I’m going to type a randomizing formula for the numbers, so that every time I refresh the spreadsheet by hitting F9 the numbers change. Thus, I can make an infinite number of different word problems to give students to practice with.
    Here’s another idea: use the advanced search feature on google to search for only word problems that use basic English, as opposed to intermediate or advanced English.

  3. I just have to say… I know your pain. Sometimes I feel like my math curriculum would serve a better purpose if my students used it as scrap paper.

  4. Lizzy

    I actually really like Harcourt, except for the ridiculous word problem tests. The book itself teaches great patterns (from doubles plus one facts in 2nd grade through the ones you described for multiplying decade numbers) in a way that will help them in algebra. However, the Harcourt test and the state tests have nothing to do with math, it is all reading. The 2nd graders I work with, who cannot read words like bat, are not allowed to be read their math quarter test (Harcourt/district). You tell me how any of them will pass, forget what they know about math or not. At some point, you will need to decide whether it is better to focus on test taking strategies or math. There is no right answer, since both of those things will continue to focus predominantly in your students’ lives. There is achievement and there is standardized achievement, and it is up to you, your specific TFA goals, and your school/district, to decide what you wish to work towards. In my state the algebra state test is taken with a graphing calculator (entire test) and students only need 1/2 of the questions correct to pass. You can choose to teach students how to do everything on the calculator and pass, or you can teach them how to actually do algebra and have them make small mistakes and pick the answer that is always there to support their mistake. Which one depends on your district’s view of things……. Good luck!

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