Book Review: Teaching Math in the 21st Century


“Teaching Math in the 21st Century”
By Barry Garelick; Introduction by Ze’ev Wurman; 2015, $9.95; 164 pages

As reviewed by Matthew Tabor, Editor, Education News

I spend my days working, and¬†primarily reading, in education media. When it comes to Common Core, everyone is an expert and everyone has a solution (and a not-so-short list of villains). Hardly anyone bothers to write about what it’s like in the classroom — and to be fair, those who could usually can’t because of the professional consequences. It leaves us with a dearth of what is arguably the most important testimony.

In ‘Teaching Math in the 21st Century,’ Garelick, who has written on math education for The Atlantic, Education Next, Education News and others, takes advantage of a very unique set of circumstances. He’s an experienced insider as a math teacher; he’s an outsider as a school’s long-term substitute. He knows mathematics, having studied the actual discipline (i.e., not a watered-down math education degree). Since he’s a second-career teacher after having retired from the EPA, he understands how math is, and is not, applied in the workplace.

In short, Barry Garelick is the guy you want teaching your kid algebra.

Garelick has an impressive resume which, thankfully, he doesn’t rely on to offer another series of pronouncements about Common Core in a terribly-saturated intellectual marketplace. Instead, he lets his experience teaching math in the current climate of a largely confused, disorganized transition to Common Core in a California school district speak for itself.

Interactions with Sally, a district official armed with Common Core sound bytes and little substance, show just how nebulous Common Core implementation is in the average school district. Garelick’s accounts of how he matched proven, effective math instruction with muddy, CC-inspired district requirements shed light on how good teachers approach an uncertain landscape with equal parts reluctant-but-genuine compliance and cunning.

More importantly, Garelick shows how Common Core’s implementation affects students. The school is intent on reserving 8th grade Algebra for the “truly gifted,” a designation the district does not define. They admit to making up the selection process as they go along, which is comprised of a mini-gauntlet of testing the district says they can’t evaluate until they see the results. It’s a paradoxical mindset reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi advising that ‘we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.’

Garelick’s students and their parents are confused by the whole regime. Vignettes of several students, from struggling to solid, show just how difficult it is for the average 13 year old to get a sense of what’s going on in their math sequence — a point demonstrated best by a student Garelick describes as ‘bright’ ripping in half a placement test of ambiguous purpose. Garelick does a capable job of leading them through the swamp despite encountering several hurdles, from classroom management to interactions with individual students, that bring a refreshing honesty to the book (I’ve read enough self-congratulatory, humble-bragging teachers-as-superheroes accounts, and since I’m familiar with the realities of the classroom, I’m not interested in reading another.)

That Garelick’s account is based on teaching Algebra and pre-Algebra courses — the foundation for one’s future study of math — gives weight to his testimony.

Teaching in the 21st Century does not lay out every problem with Common Core math or the effects it may have on public education. It doesn’t address how to influence legislators and policymakers, or even how one might approach a local school board. It doesn’t advise you on the best math curriculum for your algebra-saddled student.

Instead, the book offers a brief glimpse into the eye of the storm that matters to kids, parents and teachers: the classroom as it functions under changing curricula and mindsets and how stakeholders deal with it. The book shows how great teachers are desperate to deliver a solid education in spite of proclamations from disconnected, poorly-grounded leaders; it shows how students just want to learn math and parents want to feel confident and informed about the education their kids are receiving.

That honest, unvarnished perspective — what educators really do in the face of a curricular sea change after having been given faulty maps, crude navigation devices and high expectations — is what we need more of right now in the education debate. In Teaching Math in the 21st Century, Garelick delivers it.

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