Visiting mathematician talks education

Richard Askey spoke about the Common Core State Standards Initiative on Oct. 11.

The Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitors Series hosted University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus Richard Askey on Monday to address problems with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a new program aimed to prepare K-12 students for college-level English Language Arts and mathematics.

Missouri adopted the program June 15, 2010.

The discussion included the topic of the major inequality that exists in several mathematic curriculums throughout the nation.

“There is something wrong when a professional mathematician opens an eighth grade book and can’t read it,” Askey said during the discussion at Jesse Wrench Auditorium.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is designed to help educators and students know what they are supposed to learn.

So far, more than 30 states have adopted the program, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative's website.

Askey was asked to be part of the feedback group for the Common Core State Standards, but he declined. He heard from a secondhand source that glaring errors exist in the curriculum.

“The new math failed for numbers of reasons,” he said. “Foolish things were written in textbooks.”

Multiple-choice questions are also a problem, Askey said. Students can easily plug in answers for “X” during standardized testing.

“We need to learn how to ask questions not as multiple choices, but as gridded responses,” he said.

Teaching students how to use gridded responses will help them understand the problem, Askey said. Mistakes in educational programs aren’t new.

MU Department of Mathematics professor James Tarr said he believes there is a major incongruence with math topics in the United States.

“There is no national curriculum, but (the Common Core State Standards Initiative) is a step towards that,” he said.

Tarr said without universal standards, students in one state might learn different algebra topics from those in another state, which gives some students an advantage.

Elias Saab, a retired professor and former Department of Mathematics chairman, said he agrees with the arguments Askey made.

“(Teachers) need to know how to teach the course than what is in the course,” he said. “They need to be prepared better.”

Saab, who is from Lebanon, notices a striking difference between mathematics in the U.S. and his homeland.

“There is a national exam for high school students (in Lebanon) that second or third year students in college (in the United States) could do,” he said.

Askey said he is aware of the gap between math students in the U.S. and other countries.

In one slide during the discussion, he showed a sixth grade geometry problem from Singapore that would be relatively hard for 10th graders.

“How many 10th graders could get that problem?” he asked.

Askey said he does not believe math curriculums in the U.S. should be internationally based. The problem is that current curriculums do not teach students to understand the problems.

“Things are not written in quite the way it should be, but states will have an opportunity to try to fix these things,” he said.

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