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 mathematics.
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." ---------- Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER ---------- Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1999 all Rights reserved. ****************************************************** 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 methods.
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 U.S. Department of Education report on math programs can be found at
http://www.enc.org/ed/exemplary/ ----------------------- 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) E-mail: email@example.com