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My Reaction to the Virginia Pathways Math Initiative

Over thirty years ago the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics created their 1989 Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. They managed to convince many in the k-12 education community that learning basic skills should be replaced by learning to “think”. If only students would learn to think, they could be put into cooperative groups to discover 2000 years of mathematics on their own. It should have occurred to them that learning and analyzing basic mathematical algorithms (and yes I do mean standard algorithms) promotes some of the most powerful thinking skills one could obtain and that such skills could be applied to every other facet of a student’s educational experience. After reading the NCTM document and experiencing math textbooks turning into colors, charts, stories and a little bit of math, I knew which side of the math wars I would join.

Now fast forward to 2021 and the NCTM along with the Virginia Department of Education are at it again. The Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative proposes the elimination of advanced math placement for all students until grade eleven. Even though public outcry has forced the VDOE to backtrack on some parts of the initiative, the intention and philosophy are alive and well. Replacing well defined courses with an ill-defined conglomeration of very broad topics will basically gut the content currently studied in Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. Students will not be prepared to take precalculus or any serious advanced math course. And this is in addition to mathematically able students being forced into an intellectual wasteland for four years. This eerily reminds me of so-called research done in the 1980s concluding that middle school students experienced a brain growth plateau and thus higher order thinking skills could not be expected from them during their middle school years. The theory has snice been debunked many time over but the FCPS superintendent at the time, Linton Deck, cited the research when he encouraged middle school teachers to simply reinforce previously learned concepts. Save their new learning for later. I attended a staff development meeting where he made similar comments. I was also around when the middle school concept was introduce and FCPS intermediate schools were converted to middle schools. This concept assumed that middle school students exhibited learning traits much closer to elementary students than to high school students. Thus we were instructed to tone down content (high school) and concentrate more on social-emotional activities. At the time I worked with many very fine middle school teachers who were passionate about both their subject and teaching. Some were politely told that they would be better off teaching at a high school. I remained teaching in middle school only because I found ways get around the” dumbing down content” craze.

So as stated, I have seen the VMPI philosophy before in some form or other and it is simply the latest attempt to dumb down American K-12 schools. This latest version of the dumbing down process is disguised in the so-called push for equity. In the segregated south, governors and other state officials proclaimed that black students could not learn the same way as white students and thus should remain in segregated classrooms. In 2021 some at the VDOE assume that black and Hispanic students cannot learn math the same way that whites and Asians learn it. Hence, dump the entire curriculum and start over with an extreme dumbed down version. And voila, now everyone can learn math! Every Black and Hispanic family should be livid at such an assumption. And every math teacher in the state should also be livid. I am.