Weapons of Math Destruction (Oak Norton)
Q: How do you know when you’ve been fighting your school district too long?
A: When you create a comic strip based on your experiences and you’ve got plenty of material to use.
Alpine School District, Utah. I wasn’t born or raised here, but this is where I got my real world education. I suppose one could say that I “discovered” myself through the experiences I’ve had here.
A few years ago my oldest daughter was finishing up her third grade year and at a parent/teacher conference I asked her teacher when they were going to start learning the times tables since they hadn’t yet and I’d done it nearly thirty years earlier in third grade.
The teacher replied, “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” [pause for picking my jaw off the ground]
“You don’t do that anymore?”
“That’s right, it’s not part of the curriculum.”
“Well then how do you expect the children to learn their times tables?”
“Well,” she thoughtfully paused, “the smart kids will just pick it up as they go.” This time my jaw cracked hard when it hit the ground and I was off to the principal’s office.
The principal explained that although this method was different from how we had grown up, there were problems with traditional math and all the research showed kids were really excelling under these discovery learning methods. I left with a serious intestinal problem and promptly purchased Singapore math workbooks and flashcards for my children to make sure they knew their basic facts.
A year and a half later, I was at a school community meeting where I had sworn to myself not to bring up math. Thankfully another parent did and asked why we weren’t following California’s example, which after trying these programs made a switch away from them. The administrator present stood up and said California hadn’t given the programs a full implementation and thus didn’t really have a fair test. Then, shockingly, two parents stood up in support of the Investigations math program and said they loved it. I had never met any parents that liked the program, so after the meeting I approached a school board member and suggested they run a survey to figure out why there was such a disconnect between parents and district folks that either hate or love these programs. She said it was a great idea, and I knew with perfect clarity that nothing of the sort would ever happen. So I did it. I got my website going and ran the survey. I even got that board member to take it and tell me it was a fair set of questions. I *discovered* that 80% of parents that took my unscientific survey hated the math program. Then I started to do research. That’s when I found out there’s not one valid independent study that supports these constructivist programs and not only did California do a full implementation of them in the 90’s, they destroyed California’s math program and took it from one of the top in the nation to second lowest.
With this research under my belt, I started a petition which over a course of months grew to over 5% of the district children being represented on the petition (not a small task for a district of 54,000 children). I tried to push all the hot-buttons I could for the district, so we aired radio commercials, contacted legislators, and wrote all the other school districts in the state in an effort to show them what a hot potato these programs were and that if they didn’t want life to be miserable for themselves they’d better avoid them.
Over the course of time in communicating with my petition signers, I felt like my text only emails were losing strength and decided to spice them up with a couple of comics. Unfortunately, there were so many negative things happening to poke fun at, it turned into pages of ideas to generate comics from. It was almost the only real self-defense we had to poke fun at the insanity we were experiencing with school district “educrats” who knew all the answers and just paid lip service to your concerns.
I found a great artist on my math petition, Bob Bonham, and called the comics Weapons of Math Destruction and dedicated the site to peacefully disarming fuzzy math. Each week we send out a comic to all the subscribers and it’s all free so I hope everyone reading this will go out and subscribe. I also try to maintain a loose database of school districts where fuzzy math has infiltrated so that you can make an informed decision before moving somewhere that could potentially give your child fuzzy math radiation sickness.
There are some things in life that are just meant to be discovered. Multiplication tables are not one of them. The basic framework around which a child’s education centers is not one of them. Children need a solid foundation taught directly to them but at the same time, have exploration activities that center around those basic facts. Children’s minds thirst for answers. They soak up knowledge like the desert soaks up water. Allowing them to discover incorrect facts on their own is like poison. It absorbs just like the water but causes long term damage, not allowing even good and healthy knowledge to gain root in the future.
In October 2006, we had a major victory in Utah as several legislators helped pressure the state to appoint a committee to give us world class math standards. We are hopeful that as a result of our actions, fuzzy math has been neutralized, but we intend to keep doing our part to promote the complete disarmament of forms of education destructive to our children’s future.
The father of five young children, Oak Norton is a CPA working as the CFO for a law firm in Utah.