A School Yard Blog has an absolutely wonderful post on reforming the teaching of mathematics! It is centered around a letter from a man named Ted who was named the mathematics teacher of the year in Colorado the same year he was fired from his school for his non-traditional methods. The letter was written to the University of Northern Colorado prior to a talk he was to give to teacher candidates so the administrators could approve what he was going to say. It’s a long letter but well worth reading. I especially like these remarks from Ted about school reform.

Now we have schools, who for the past decade have entered into discussions about reform. It seems that is OK to talk about it as long as you don’t act on the talk. Schools that attempt to actually implement reform face seemingly limitless obstacles. Students and parents protest. A key administrator doesn’t “get it”. Some teachers have the motivation but not the vision. Political entities become involved at all levels. Through it all there is a powerful undertow – a nostalgic support for what has been the norm, coupled with a tendency for those who have attained power and are winning in the present game not wanting the rules of the game to change.

A large part of the letter is Ted’s response to an editorial in Education Week that is very critical of the Standards for Mathematics Teaching (first published in the late 80’s by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and supportive of greater emphasis on "basic skills". Here’s some what he has to say about basic skills.

There follows a lamentation about the death of basic skills. Loveless implies that the Standards are an attempt to teach basic skills by osmosis. He misses the point that what was “basic” a half century ago is not guaranteed to be “basic” today. There are new basic skills. Functionality with technology is a basic skill. Estimation is a basic skill. Evaluating answers for reasonableness is a basic skill. Number sense is a basic skill. The basic skills of the past, largely algorithmic in nature, were not so basic, and were elusive. They were, in fact, a myth. If they were (are) so basic, why are there so many functional and successful adults who do not own them? Why does the Bank of America warn and then fire employees who perform pencil and paper calculations instead of using technology?

As I said, read the whole letter.