Conceptual Failing

My daughter and I have been bullied into doing math. While it was the united force of her teacher and her grandmother who set these wheels in motion, I’m not cowed by my mother or even the squat, Jabba the Hutesque countenance of her 4th grade school missus, but rather by the haunting worry any parent has that my child won’t keep up. She will fall behind, be hopelessly lost, take a bus to New York at age 17 to pursue a far-fetched career in the arts, and I will only hear from her once every six months with pleas for drug money or to co-sign a loan for her new boyfriend from Qatar.

How did my adolescent daydreams of adventure become the nightmares of parenthood? 

So we do math. That’s right, fractions and decimals are my puny safeguards against an uncertain future. And gosh we hate it. I never used to do homework during the summer. I have always entered a math-class confident that the teacher would re-teach any concepts I was rusty on before the rest of the crap commenced.

And aside from three heart rending terms in high-school geometry (for what, I ask you? A final grade of ‘D’ and three sessions of grounding?) this approach has played out decently well for me.

But it turns out school isn’t the same now as it was then. It’s just not. Not only are they learning more stuff earlier, they don’t learn it the same way we did then. I’m finding out that my daughter is really good at quickly absorbing the process to arrive at an answer, but when I talk to her about the underlying concepts in our math-sheets, she doesn’t understand.  

I’m not even sure I understand what I’m trying to explain. It’s almost like they have taught math in a linear way. There has been conscientious drilling of the times tables, she knows all the small number multiplication and division, but her understanding of the numbers seems to halt somewhere around the symbol level.

It seems to me she hasn’t retained a lot of the concepts because the conceptual understanding was never  in place. Decimals? Decimals she treats as numbers where you have the added step of conscientiously placing a period. I took for granted that she would understand how decimals and fractions were related, that they both symbolize a portion of a whole.

Blank look. Blank stare. Weeks I’ve been seeing this. So I go to the cupboard, and get out the beans, break them in half, sort them into piles. We bought an awful Safeway pie so I could try to convey some understanding of fractions. My daughter’s grades in the last report-card were good. I find this lack of understanding depressing.

So I’ve asked around. Is there something wrong with her cognitive development? Is she in some sort of twilight zone of linear thinking? Is there any commonality between Sierra and her classmates in this seeming failure to wrap her mind around abstract reasoning?

And the answers I’ve gotten, from other parents and the internet seem to match up. There’s nothing wrong with my daughter’s cognitive tools- always a bit slow to each development stage, Sierra nonetheless masters things in her own time, and usually she turns out to be where she ought to be. She talked late, but when she did it was rapid vocabulary. Same with walking: Slow to take that first step, she followed the first with an oddly graceful second, and tripped up far less after learning to walk than most of her contemporaries.

She’s a perfectionist.

But the reason she isn’t ‘getting’ the underlying concepts of math, is because they are largely not being taught. Sierra probably hasn’t been offered concept based math principles since the first, possibly the 2nd grade. Now they teach math in a result oriented fashion- the curriculum, the whole learning process is engaged in one initiative: Make them pass the test.

No Child Left Behind did a number on teachers and students alike. Teachers were once sought out and valued for creativity in the classroom, but now they are rewarded for a stream-lined and highly documented approach that equals ‘best in test’. Long before No Child Left Behind, though, paranoia was taking the teaching experience to newly austere levels. 

From my year in Americorps I understand just how much exhaustive red tape has to be navigated to take a classroom of children to an Education Board approved field trip. Parties are no longer permitted in our local district unless a teacher can prove ahead of time that there is an educational focus. Activities that require hands on, student interaction usually die at the conception point because we are all so scared of germs, touching, possible cuts or bruises, fights erupting, freak lawsuits or ‘wasting time’ that could be spent on the three R’s.

Talk about wasting time- what’s scary to me is that teachers might learn to engage their students in the watered down, mass manufacturing approach that we call education today. 

Is it possible, as my father has long speculated, that those in charge are actually orchestrating a ‘dumbing down’ of America’s children? One of the most common ways through history for the rich and powerful to maintain the status quo has been to deny education to the masses. Ideas and problem solving skills are the flint and powder that have sparked countless uprisings by the proletariat,- but I wonder if the current state of education isn’t more of a communal failing.

We are a fear based society in so many ways. Afraid that our children won’t compete in world markets, we may be siphoning away the most important resources for a bright future in favor of so called ‘marketable skills’. Afraid of a handful of terrorists, we have made choices as a community that favor leaders who promise safety and deliver instead legislation that will damage the heartblood of our nation: Our children and our natural resources. 

Fearing the social stigma that accompanies the outcast, we’ve forgotten to speak out, to demand a better quality of life for the people left in our charge. It isn’t acceptable to accept education the way it’s being delivered in our country.

Perhaps the fault for my daughter’s struggle rests with me.


11 thoughts on “Conceptual Failing

  1. I could go on and on here, but I won’t, except to say that personally, with no exaggeration, no sarcasm, and no sense of irony, I firmly believe that there is a governmental mandate to create a less-conscious working-class nation. I think this not only because of the regimented thoughtless standards of public school “education,” but also because of the push for young children to be diagnosed with psychological and emotional disorders. I think most of the kids pegged with ADD are simply normal children who do not learn by sitting still. But once they’re medicated, they’re conforming to someone else’s agenda, and they’re no longer “disruptive,” which means they’re no longer expressing individual needs, which means they are no longer individuals.

    Individuals cause problems.

    I think our government does not want us to be individuals.

    I’m amazed when people my age defend the public school system, saying, “I’m the product of a public school education, and I’m fine.” It’s as though they don’t realize that thirty years ago, things were very different. There were field trips. Class parties. Creative ways of learning.

    I remember being taught fractions, and the abstract concept was taught long before it was ever applied to numbers. It’s not your daughter; it’s the system.

  2. I recall vividly that ‘non-understanding’ blankness when working with my kids on these same concepts you describe….. and being told by them that they weren’t being taught the same way I had been in the ‘old days’. (Ouch!) They are just 5 – 7 years younger than you.
    I also recall railing against the incredible stupidity of the system – ‘how could they…..??’ My brother is a principal and we had a few heated discussions over the rampant changes to the ways in which kids are taught. ‘Chunking’, I think they called it. The ‘big’ concept without any of those pesky details to explain it and make it understandable. Spelling, grammar, numeracy… you name it; it aint what it used to be.
    That system seems to have served my daughter pretty well. My son manages but there are still some basics that at age 25 he simply doesn’t get and likely never will. Two different kids; two vastly different outcomes.
    The educators hijacked the system a long time ago.

  3. First, I just want to say that it sounds like Sierra is doing great. I’ve found, now having a 12-year-old in an academically challenging private school, that learning the times tables and divisions and the very basics — memorizing it — is one of the most basic and oft-used tools she now calls on. The conceptual understanding is coming now, in middle school.

    Also, I struggled with the new methods of teaching math in elementary school. I learned old-fashioned long-hand division and multiplication, and now they do 5’s/10’s and trees and whatever else. The good news is that Dee’s 4th- and 5th-grade teacher, who was the same woman, had in her 25 years taught it all, so when the students struggled with one method, she taught them another. Here I was worried that I might confuse Dee if I went back to my approach; I should have worried. Every kid is different, and some approaches stick or make sense more than others.

    Last thought — No child left behind is horrid. I hear our public school teachers complain about it constantly. They are dog-tired, frustrated, unable to meet the standards in a school day. The arts are out the door. Someone commented to me recently that she saw Dee’s former teacher (and now Em’s 4th-grade teacher) at an Obama rally. That poor woman is working her butt off to elect a president who will get rid of NCLB and allow teachers to get some sanity and balance back in the classroom.

  4. I took trigonometry in high school from some old geezer who clearly didn’t give a shit, and barely passed. Then, in college I had to learn trig all over again because I was (briefly) an electronics engineering major and lo and behold I became a trig whiz! I think it was because I could see a practical use for it and some professor actually connected the dots.

  5. “No child left behind” seems quite intent on leaving ALL children behind instead. The dumbing down of America and the lost opportunity to give these children tools they’ll use to create a better life–yes, I’m referring to art and music and critical thinking skills–is absolutely frustrating and quite horrifying.

    My son is going into the teaching field because he thinks he can make a difference to little boys frustrated with the rigid school day – K-5, he’s planning. He HATED school BTW — one of those boys everyone wanted to label and medicate, and we refused to do either. He was an active, curious boy – not sick.

    I am happy that he realizes what a trap he was in, knows what he wants to do to change it, and I’m hoping he finds a school environment that allows him that flexibility and opportunity.

    I hope he finds one. I just don’t know…

  6. Well said, Amuirin! This dumbing down, something that seems to have been going on for a while now, scares me.

    I spent a lot of time supplementing the education of my sons, especially my youngest. The school system was boring him to the point that he was refusing to learn. Even way back then they were teaching towards The Test since Ohio has had proficiency testing for far too long now.

    No field trips at school? Fine. I took him out of school and we went on our own field trips to see plays or concerts, to walk through museums or the woods. I found all sorts of creative ways to get him thinking and reasoning, something the school system doesn’t teach anymore.

    I hope that No Child Left Behind gets left behind in the near future. It isn’t working. Unless, of course, the whole purpose is, as you speculate, to dumb down the people.

  7. No Child is a flawed program and a convenient scapegoat, the reality of the situation is that there were big problems before that came along. It was an attempt to fix a problem, it failed, but the problems were there before.

    It grew out of the PC movement of the 90’s. Before “no child left behind” it was “no child is wrong.” Remember “new math?” and “phonics?”
    We got so worried about never letting kids feel failure that we told them they could get full credit if they just tried to do it.

    Pushing athletes and problem kids through grade levels just to clear them out of the system was going on when I was in school… 14 years ago. Teachers started striking for higher wages while illiterate kids were graduating high school.

    Parents started working more, kids started being raised in daycare and every other one was diagnosed with ADHD when all they needed was to have some structure at home. I worked at a daycare circa 1998 and fully 50% of the kids were on ritalin.

    Society doesn’t want anything to ever be anyone’s fault so if the kid is uncrontrollable they must have a condition. Discipline in schools went to zero because teachers couldn’t do anything because parents would just yell at them. Things spiraled out of control.

    The system is to blame but these problems didn’t show up just because GWB started a program. A lot of them developed when Clinton was in office and we decided it wasn’t ok to tell a child they were wrong.

    All this is why my kids are in private school. I can’t afford it… but I can’t afford not to. The whole public school system needs a reboot.

  8. I wish she could have learned in Montessori…my mom seriously went into a year long depression when she realized that she couldn’t support us on a Montessori teacher salary (hint…much less than public teacher salary even). And this is why: because she couldn’t stand to see that a student might need one or two more days of working on something, to GET IT, vs. get?it?, and in public school, that child was indeed left behind, whereas in Montessori, that child was allowed the time.
    And that was in the ’70s. It’s only worse now.

    And this:
    “How did my adolescent daydreams of adventure become the nightmares of parenthood? ”


  9. I don’t think the problem is you, A. And also, I wonder if maybe it doesn’t take a while for the pieces to fall into place for your daughter. I know it often worked that way for me. At work and home. Sometimes I was just stumped, left on a Friday, came in on Monday, and it all fell into place – what was the problem?

    Maybe if you circle back on some of this stuff later — without making a big get-out-the-homework deal about it (I liked your beans and pie teaching aids) and go through the steps again, you’ll find it now clicks.

    I liked and agree with many of the comments above, too.

  10. Can’t argue with anything you’ve said there, a system built on results provides politicians with a lot of soundbite-friendly policy statements. Reducing any system to its output misses out so much of the nuance that goes into making that system possible, no different for the educational system really.

  11. as a kid growing up in the 80’s i played baseball. we kept score. there was a winner and a loser.

    when i was in school and i failed a test i received an F.

    apparently nowadays getting an F is not bad enough; we now have to determine what type of F the student gets.

    in addition to dumbing down the classes to make sure we leave no child behind, we now want to make sure the kids that are failing don’t feel like they are that far behind?

    correct me if I am wrong, if you have a 50 percent F versus a 30 percent F, you still failed — right?!

    hey, some people get to be astronauts; some people get to ask “would you like fires with that?”. making them feel better about their F, or making it easier to come back to a D isn’t going to make the difference.

    i think slothboy is right on. GWB is an idiot, but what we’re seeing now are the results of an idiot’s solution to a pre existing problem; which is an entirely too scary concept to wrap my head around.

    basically, we’re fucked.

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