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Math without concepts like a building without its foundation

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 11:09 a.m. CST

Twenty-five years ago this month I was in Gov. Branstad’s office to watch him sign the open enrollment legislation I had helped to get through the Legislature.  My hope was that competition among the schools would ultimately improve curriculum. 

In spite of my efforts to explain foundational math concepts to the Baxter school board (all of which can now be found in the national Common Core curriculum), I was unable to get them to adopt a concept-based curriculum.  They were like the rest of the public schools in the state (and around the country) that also resisted efforts by individuals, like me, to get foundational concepts back into the curriculum. 

Public schools not only resisted efforts of individuals, they ignored reports issued from time to time (“A Nation at Risk” being just one of them). 

When the NAEP exams changed to testing for concepts rather than memorized topics in the mid-1990s, Iowa was at a loss to explain why their standing began falling (since regular dumbing down of the Iowa assessment tests showed them doing well).  Continued refusal to put concepts back into the curriculum led ultimately to NCLB and the example of the national Common Core curriculum to show schools what concepts were all about.

Think of foundational concepts as like the foundation of a structure.  Remove the foundation and the structure has no solid basis.  Lacking a solid basis it ultimately begins falling into its component parts. 

Over the course of 50 years, these component parts erode to different shapes that can no longer be put back together again. We have many abandoned buildings to serve as examples of structures that have lost their integrity as their foundation falls away. 

This is what happened to education when foundational concepts were removed about fifty years ago. Topics became memorized items, and the focus of what topics to memorize was determined by “sneaking a peek” at what the Iowa assessment tests would include.

Students who struggled due to the absence of foundational concepts were labeled as “defective” so their test scores could be eliminated from the calculation of school average.  Schools, understandably, did not want to abandon the cheating system they had created in the absence of foundational concepts.

When forced by the national government to adopt the national Common Core or one that was higher, the Iowa education system chose to do the following:  They took the foundational concepts provided by the national government and then attempted to place their piecemeal topics on top of it as if to rebuild the structure that was lost fifty years ago with the removal of concepts. 

This will not work. It will not work because the pieces (topics) have taken on a different shape since falling into separate topics after the removal of the foundation.  The new shapes no longer fit together, and they interfere with the functioning of the foundational concepts as a system. 

Schools need to have the option of using the national Common Core or the Iowa Core if there is to be competition, basic to the open enrollment legislation enacted 25 years ago.  Only then will it be made apparent which curriculum is closer to world standards, and Iowa can move up from the 41st national percentile as the student proficiency standard.