The mathematics curriculum that is taking a parent to court

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The developers of a U.S. mathematics curriculum known as the Mathematics Vision Project or MVP have filed a lawsuit in a Utah court against Blain Dillard, a parent who has been highly critical of the curriculum and who has led a campaign against its implementation in Wake County, North Carolina. In response, supporters have created a crowd-funding page on Go Fund Me to aid Dillard with legal expenses.

According to documents seen by a local newspaper, MVP accuse Dillard of making false and defamatory comments that have harmed sales of the programme. I am not in any position to comment on the veracity of any of the claims made either by Dillard or MVP in this regard, but having briefly reviewed some of the materials that are available online, I can understand why parents may be concerned.

The first resource I took a look at was a presentation that attempts to explain what MVP is all about. It heavily references America’s Common Core standards and how well the programme aligns with these standards. For the uninitiated, this is the closest the U.S. comes to the kind of national curriculum that countries such as England and Australia possess. Curriculum matters are devolved to districts in the U.S. and so the federal government has to pretend that any interventions it makes are about ‘standards’ rather than curriculum. Although I am not all over the details, the Common Core maths standards seem to represent a once promising project that has been captured by constructivists.

What is missing from the presentation is any discussion of teaching. I favour explicit teaching because of the wealth of evidence to support its efficacy. However, when I explain explicit teaching to those outside of the education debate, they often look slightly puzzled and I realise that I am describing what they think of simply as ‘teaching’. The MVP presentation doesn’t have much to say about teaching, explicit or otherwise. Instead, it focuses on ‘problems’ and ‘exercises’. This reminds me a lot of the kind of ‘here’s a cool activity’ approach favoured by some advocates of fuzzy maths and warned against by the late Grant Wiggins.

MVP is also apparently a ‘multi-tasking approach to learning’ where each Common Core standard is addressed in more than one task and each task addresses more than one standard. Multi-tasking is not as easy as people sometimes think and on face value, this risks overloading students, leading to frustration.

However, as we progress in our understanding, we transfer more concepts and procedures to our long-term memory. These may then be drawn upon effortlessly in future tasks. If MVP is structured and sequential, training students in one discrete component at a time before bringing them all together, then we should eventually expect to see something approaching ‘multi-tasking’. So I decided to look at some of the materials. The MVP presentation discusses the Linear and Exponential Functions topic, so I took a look at the teachers’ guide.

The first thing to note is that there is a lot going on here. Not only are linear and exponential functions brought together, we also have the distinction between sequences and functions to deal with, alongside a discussion of domain. This is potentially confusing if not broken down into small chunks. The previous topic was about sequences so perhaps students are able to carry this forward.

It looks for all the world like students are expected to simply start working on the problems in groups, with the initial role of the teacher being to simply clarify the question. For example, instructions for the first lesson are:

“Begin the lesson by helping students to read the four problems and understand the contexts. Since students are already comfortable with arithmetic and geometric sequences and their representations, these questions should be quite familiar, with no need for the teacher to offer a suggested path for solving them. Remind students that their mathematical models should include tables, graphs, and equations.”

As a maths teacher, I am surprised that ‘students are already comfortable with arithmetic and geometric sequences’ and I would be inclined to check that first rather than assume it. At the end of the problem-solving phase, there is a teacher-led discussion that uses student work and attempts to backfill by drawing students’ attention to all the things they should have discovered, such as the difference between discrete and continuous change. Students then complete an apparently unrelated exercise which may be intended as a form of spaced practice.

The topic continues like this. The launch phase sometimes involves briefly ‘reminding’ students about something such as what domain means, but it is often solely about clarifying the problems they are going to be working on.

From this brief review, MVP therefore appears to be a form of problem-based learning which is highly likely to overload the students. I would predict that a small proportion of highly able maths students would make progress but that it would be challenging for the rest, with the least advanced struggling the most. Instead of explicitly teaching concepts and procedures from the outset, students are expected to discover key ideas for themselves, with the teacher drawing-out and synthesising these discoveries at the end of the problem-solving phase.

If I am right then I can imagine students coming home and expressing their frustrations to their parents. In such a circumstance, I am not surprised that parents would express concerns about the programme.

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2 thoughts on “The mathematics curriculum that is taking a parent to court

  1. Tara Houle says:

    This sets a chilling effect on communities if parents are threatened with litigation anytime they want to advocate for their child. Thank you for your perspective on this.

  2. Curricula/math programs that rely on problem based learning are flawed for the reasons you give above. In large part, they are based on the mistaken belief that novices learn the same way that experts do. The creators of such programs believe that by forcing students to make connections with skills and concepts that they may not have mastered, the students will then construct their own knowledge. They assume that learning what is needed in a “just in time” manner, provides the motivation for learning, which they also assume would otherwise be a tedious and soul killing exercise.

    The parent was justified in criticizing the program. From what I’ve read, the creators of the program and the school district insisting on it have done very little to justify its use and they refuse to acknowledge any flaws.

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