I live in Silicon Valley, which operates on the assumption that there’s no problem that technology can’t solve. It suffuses our culture here, and sometimes we pay the price for this technocratic utopianism. Case in point: Right now, I’m sending my kid to a public school in Mountain View, CA–the home of Google–where the administrators have upended the entire sixth grade math program. Last August, they abolished the traditional math program–you know, where students get to sit in a classroom and learn from a trained and qualified math teacher. And instead the administrators asked students to learn math mainly from a computer program called Teach to One. Run by a venture called New Classrooms, Teach to One promises to let each student engage in “personalized learning,” where a computer program gauges each student’s knowledge of math, then continually customizes the math education that students receive. It all sounds like a great concept. Bill Gates has supposedly called it the “Future of Math Education.” But the rub is this: Teach to One doesn’t seem ready for the present. And our kids are paying the price.
A new article featured in our local paper, The Mountain View Voice, outlines well the problems that students and parents have experienced with the Teach to One program. I would encourage any parent or educator interested in the pitfalls of these “innovative” math programs to give the article a good look.
If you read the article, here’s what you will learn. The Mountain View school district apparently budgeted $521,000 to implement and operate this new-fangled math program in two local schools (Graham and Crittenden Middle Schools). Had they adequately beta tested the program beforehand, the school district might have discovered that Teach to One teaches math–we have observed–in a disjointed, non-linear and often erratic fashion that leaves many students baffled and disenchanted with math. The program contains errors in the math it teaches. Parents end up having to teach kids math at home and make up for the program’s deficiencies. And all the while, the math teachers get essentially relegated to “managing the [Teach to One] program rather than to providing direct instruction” themselves.
By October, many parents started to register individual complaints with the school district. By December, 180 parents signed a letter meticulously outlining the many problems they found with the Teach to One program. (You can read that letter here.) When the school later conducted a survey on Teach to One (review it here), 61% of the parents “said they do not believe the program matches the needs of their children,” and test scores show that this crop of sixth graders has mastered math concepts less well than last year’s. (Note: there was a big decrease in the number of kids who say they love math, and conversely a 413% increase in the number of kids who say they hate math.) Given the mediocre evaluation, the parents have asked for one simple thing–the option to let their kids learn math in a traditional setting for the remainder of the year, until it can be demonstrated that Teach to One can deliver better results. (Teach to One would ideally continue as a smaller pilot, where the kinks would get worked out.) So far the school district, headed by Ayindé Rudolph, has continued to champion the Teach to One program in finely-spun bureaucratic letters that effectively disregard parental concerns and actual data points. But the schools have now agreed to let students spend 5o% of their time learning math with Teach to One, and the other 50% learning math from a qualified teacher. Why the impractical half measure? I can only speculate.
I posted this so that interested parents and educators, wherever you live, can be prudent and thoughtful when it comes to adopting computer-driven math programs. Perhaps you can learn something from our cautionary tale. Do your research, run a controlled pilot, and make sure the product is actually a good fit for your school. Again, I would encourage you to read the fine article in The Mountain View Voice, the parents’ letter outlining the observed deficiencies in the Teach to One program, and the eye-opening survey results on Teach to One.
Addendum: If you head over to The Mountain View Voice, you can read not only the article outlining the problems with the Teach to One “pilot.” But you can also read user comments, including one interesting one by someone called “District insider.” If what they’re saying is true, it’s a very illuminating look at what’s supposedly happening behind the scenes. That person’s post begins: “Hope this can’t be traced back to me but I feel that parents have the right to know what is really going on.”
Update: It was announced on January 12 that the Mountain View will discontinue the Teach to One math pilot effective immediately.