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.