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Topic: Open letter to Riley: Further reactions
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Open letter to Riley: Further reactions
Posted: Nov 22, 1999 3:16 PM
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From Los Angeles Times (Ventura Edition), November 18, 1999, p. 1; see also
p. A3.

1&RQT=309 ]

Controversial Programs on Math Win Area Support

Teaching: County educators say real-world examples help kids learn

Experts have criticized U.S. endorsement of such nontraditional methods

By Anna Gorman

Responding to criticism from nearly 200 mathematicians and scientists, many
Ventura County educators reaffirmed support for the nontraditional math
programs endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

The alternative programs not only teach students basic skills but also show
them how to apply math in the real world, a number of local educators said.

"We want kids to be able to reason and solve problems, not just do the rote
memorization," said Sheri Willebrand, math specialist for Ventura County
schools. "Moving back to a very traditional way of teaching math is not
really serving the kids."

But mathematicians and scientists from around the country disagree. They
wrote a letter Wednesday urging U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley
to withdraw the government's endorsement of 10 math programs that
experiment with nontraditional teaching methods.

They argue that such programs leave out basics such as multiplying
two-digit numbers and dividing fractions.

On one side of the so-called "Math Wars" are those who support programs
that make children think critically and solve problems. On the other side
are those who support programs that stress basic skills.

The state has adopted standards that focus on traditional teaching methods.

But districts throughout Ventura County--including Moorpark, Ventura,
Oxnard and Hueneme -- currently use some of the programs named in the
letter. The programs used locally are College Preparatory Mathematics,
Interactive Mathematics Program, Everyday Mathematics, Connected
Mathematics Program and MathLand.

"The programs don't look like they used to," said Bill Jacobs, a UC Santa
Barbara math professor who helps local districts implement math curricula.
"But when you go to classrooms where students are truly engaged, they are
learning math."

Mound Elementary School teacher Carolyn Lavery said the Everyday
Mathematics program -- which has been used at the Ventura school for seven
years -- sparks student interest in math. Once a week, she and her students
use the sunrise and sunset times to measure the length of the day. The
activity covers telling time and subtracting, but also addresses the
changing of the seasons, Lavery said.

"Everyday Math doesn't have an emphasis on computation," she said. "But I
believe that our kids can compute."

Willebrand said the nontraditional math programs are effective in preparing
Ventura County's students for the Stanford 9 tests. "Our kids do very
well," she said. "And the students understand the need for math, because
they are actually doing math in real-world situations."

Lavery said traditional math bores students. "When it's drill-and- kill
mathematics, they lose the excitement of doing mathematics," she said. "I
don't think that should happen to kids."

Oxnard Elementary uses MathLand in its elementary schools and College
Preparatory Mathematics and Interactive Mathematics Program in its middle
schools. Assistant Supt. Connie Sharp said the programs' emphasis on
problem solving helps students understand math concepts. But Sharp said
teachers must also teach students how to multiply, divide and do other
traditional computations.

Conejo Valley and Simi Valley school districts do not rely on the
alternative programs listed in the letter. In fact, some Simi Valley
parents have urged the district to focus even more on basic skills in

Township Elementary School in Simi Valley uses a traditional math program,
and teachers supplement that with other materials. "We do a lot of
paper-and-pencil types of things," said Principal Dolores Pekrul. "But we
also use everything else we can think of to give students a challenging
learning experience."

For example, students might sing mathematics rap songs or write their own
word problems with math vocabulary.

Carol Bartell, dean of Cal Lutheran University's School of Education, said
school districts need to find a balance that addresses both basic and
critical thinking skills. All students learn differently, Bartell said, and
schools need to tailor curricula to students' individual needs.

For example, one student may learn how to multiply by memorizing the
tables, while another may learn by working hands-on with small cubes.

The Oxnard Union High School District has found that balance, educators
there said. A few of the district's five high schools rely on traditional
teaching methods, while others are experimenting with alternative methods.

"I don't see any peaks or valleys showing that one math program is better
than any other," Assistant Supt. Gary Davis said. "We're comfortable that
they are equally effective."
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1999 all Rights
Also from Los Angeles Times (Ventura Edition), November 18, 1999, p. A3.


California and the west

Experts attack math teaching programs

Education: Top mathematicians and scientists urge U.S. to withdraw
endorsement of methods that leave out basic skills.

Federal official says change is unlikely

By Richard Lee Colvin

Nearly 200 top mathematicians and scientists, including four Nobel
laureates, are urging U.S.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to withdraw the government's
endorsement of math programs that experiment with nontraditional teaching

The strongly worded letter expresses outrage that some of the 10 widely
used programs leave out such basic skills as multiplying two-digit numbers
and dividing fractions.

"These curricula are among the worst in existence," said David Klein, a Cal
State Northridge math
professor who was one of the letter's authors. "To recommend these books as
exemplary and promising would be a joke if it weren't so damaging."

Those signing the letter fear that a government endorsement of the programs
will be a powerful force pushing teachers and school districts to use
"dumbed down" instructional materials and methods. Several said they see
the letter, which is to be publicized widely today, as providing a
countervailing argument.

Klein was joined by math professors and physicists from UC Berkeley,
Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago and
elsewhere. The signers also include two winners of the Field Medal, which
is the top honor in the field of mathematics, and Nobel laureates in
physics Steven Chu (1997), Sheldon Lee Glashow (1997), Leon M. Lederman
(1988), and Steven Weinberg (1979).

"I'm hoping to provide ammunition for teachers who are under pressure to
adopt some of these
programs," said Richard Askey, who holds an endowed chair in math at the
University of Wisconsin.

More broadly, those signing the highly unusual letter want the federal
government to refrain from taking sides in the continuing national
education debate that some have dubbed the "math wars."

Linda P. Rosen, Riley's top math advisor, said the endorsements are not
likely to be withdrawn. She
said Congress directed the department to create the panel of experts that
made the recommendations
and that the intent was to help school districts make informed choices when
purchasing math programs.

But, she said, such decisions remain "absolutely locally based" and that
school districts must take local opinions into account.

Steven Leinwand, a member of the federal panel that judged the books,
defended the selection process.

"Every one of the programs designated as exemplary had real, clean data
that showed test scores going up," said Leinwand, a consultant to the
Connecticut Department of Education.

But he acknowledged a difference of opinion among mathematicians as to what
constitutes good mathematics. "These programs do not teach kids to do
five-digit by three-digit long division problems," he said. "Instead, they
teach all kids, not just a few kids, when and why people need to divide."

Rosen and others said the letter represents an escalation in the
back-and-forth rhetorical struggle over
how to promote mathematical understanding without sacrificing the ability
to compute accurately.

As a result of the controversy, the nation's leading mathematics education
group and the leading
proponent of nontraditional methods, the National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, has sought input from professional mathematicians. Some fear
that this letter will hamper those efforts.

"I have an uncomfortable sense that everyone is talking past one another,"
Rosen said. "What's missing in the whole darn thing are the students . . .
and that's very unfortunate and just devastating to all of us who care
deeply about young people."

Hung-Hsi Wu, a UC Berkeley math professor and a co-author of the letter,
acknowledged that not all
mathematicians agree with it. But, he said, he wrote it out of a sense of
"social obligation" to improve
math instruction.

The use of nontraditional instructional materials by schools has sparked
protests in communities across the nation. Usually, those who complain are
parents who are concerned that their children are failing to learn
fundamental skills, that solving algebraic equations is being de-emphasized
and that math class has been downgraded to math appreciation class, leaving
high school graduates unprepared for college-level courses.

In California, at least, the traditionalists have gained the upper hand.
The state adopted standards for
math classes that stress memorization of multiplication tables and only
limited use of calculators, as well as an understanding of concepts such as
place value.

As a result, the state rejected, or did not consider, all of the math
programs recommended by the
federal government except for a part of one, so school districts are
prevented from using state textbook funds to buy them.

Still, the materials on the federal recommended list remain in widespread
use across the state and have
been the focus of protests by parents in Palo Alto, Escondido, Torrance,
Simi Valley, Los Angeles and many other cities around the state.

Similar battles have occurred nationally.

In the upper-middle-class Atlanta suburb of Fayette County, Ga., for
example, parents protested the
use of a program called Everyday Math. That program recommends the use of
calculators beginning in kindergarten as a device to help children count,
and teaches children an ancient Egyptian method of two-digit multiplication
as well as the one more commonly used in the United States.

As a result of the parents' protest, the school district began paying more
attention to basic skills and
added an after-school math tutoring program for high school students.

"The children haven't learned the basic facts. They move on to advanced
math before they've laid a
strong foundation and they're in a muddle," said Amy Riley, a leader of the
parent protest there.

Rick Blake, a spokesman for the Everyday Learning Co., defended the
program, saying the company
has overwhelming evidence that students do well on computation as well as
on more advanced topics.

"We've got kids doing algebra by the fifth grade," he said. "This is not
fuzzy math. It's hard."

In Plano, Texas, the parents of more than 600 middle-school students
demanded alternatives to
Connected Math, a program that the expert panel called "exemplary." The
school district has refused
and the parents have filed a federal lawsuit.

The text of the letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education can be
found at

The text of the U.S. Department of Education report on math programs can be
found at
Copyright 1999 Times Mirror Company Los Angeles Times

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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