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Topic: CA: Back to Basics
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
CA: Back to Basics
Posted: Dec 12, 1998 1:00 PM
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[Note: Thanks to colleagues from both coasts for this article.]

Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1998, Section Part A, Page 1

State School Board OKs Back to Basics for Math

Education: Guidelines discourages the use of calculators until student
can perform calculations on their own

By Nick Anderson, Times Staff Writer

Sacramento -- Reacting to the proliferation of calculators in elementary
school, the
State Board of Education on Thursday adopted new guidelines for mathematics
instruction that discourage using the devices in the classroom until children
show that they can add, subtract, multiply and divide on their own.

The state board's unanimous decision to emphasize traditional computational
skills using pencil and paper marked a sharp reversal from a previous
"framework" for mathematics adopted seven years ago.

At that time, the state's top school policymaking panel declared that
calculators had become equivalent to electronic pencils and suggested that
all students have them at hand for lessons, homework and tests.

Calculators, it was said, were crucial for an empowering math program.

Since then, the stumbling performance of California students on state and
national math tests has prompted a backlash against a reform movement
that had emphasized the development of students' abilities to think
conceptually about math over their ability to perform math procedures
like long division.

The immediate impact of Thursday's vote was unclear. In a state with 1,000
school districts, 8,000 public schools and countless competing visions of
school reform, it is rarely possible to switch course merely by decree from

The new guidelines already face stiff resistance from many teachers who say
that they put too much stress on rote memorization--turning the students into

Judy Anderson, president of the California Mathematics Council,
representing thousands of teachers, denounced the new guidelines in a
letter to the board as "narrow, biased and backward."

Hung-Hsi Wu, a mathematician from UC Berkeley who was in charge of editing
the guidelines, replied that the old policies were nothing but "a lot of
hand-waving" and "big words" without precision or rigor.

The fierce conflict reflects a long-running educational debate that also
touches on subjects such as reading and science: Should mastery of facts,
skills and procedures take priority? Or should students be freed from many
of the traditional classroom drills to explore projects and ideas, learning
the necessary facts and skills along the way?

Thursday's ratification of the new math framework and a companion document
that elevates the role of phonics in reading lessons put the state squarely in
the camp of the traditionalists. Now, board members said, the nation's largest
state school system, with 5.7 million students, has to start delivering
world-class results.

"We have a very difficult road ahead--an arduous road," said board member
Janet Nicholas. "It's about more than basic skills. Average isn't good
enough. We're aiming higher than average. It's really a measured path of
how to raise the level of student achievement."

Setback for Supt. Eastin

The 10-0 vote approving the math framework and 10-0 vote on reading were
the state board's last major actions before Gov.-elect Gray Davis, a
Democrat, takes the place of Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, in January.
Next year, as Davis begins to name replacements to the 11-member board,
many school policies could shift.

But Davis has shown no inclination to abandon or dilute the demanding new
academic standards in reading, math, science and social sciences approved
during the past two years by Wilson's board. Rather, Davis has said he
supports more summer school for students who fail to keep pace.

The state board's vote on math defied state Supt. of Public Instruction
Delaine Eastin. At the meeting, Eastin scolded the board for not taking
another month to assuage critics. "You could have done more to promote the
buy-in of teachers," she said.

Evidence abounds about the state's math failures. A nationwide math test in
1996 found that California's fourth-graders trailed their peers in 40
states; its eighth-graders were behind those in 32 states. Well over half of
the schoolchildren who took the statewide Stanford 9 math tests last spring
scored below the national average. In March, California State University
announced that a record 54% of entering freshmen needed remedial math.

Many of the state's troubles in math, experts say, stem from the high
numbers of students who are not fluent in English and who live in poverty.

Nonetheless, the new math guidelines exhort teachers and administrators to
push for better results from all students so they are ready for algebra and
geometry. The foundation for this approach was laid a year ago when the
state board approved an exhaustive list of benchmarks for what students
should learn about math from grade to grade. In kindergarten, students are
expected to "understand and describe simple additions and subtractions."
In second grade, they are to memorize the multiplication tables of 2s, 5s
and 10s, up to "times 10."

The document approved Thursday amplified on the standards by giving
teachers detailed advice on how to help students reach them. Although
the standards and the framework are voluntary, schools will have powerful
incentive to follow them because they will influence textbooks and tests.

The state's previous math guidelines, approved in 1991, encouraged teachers
to make frequent use of calculators. They were even published with pictures
of smiling children holding calculators and an image of a scientific
calculator on the cover.

The new guidelines assert the primacy of brainpower over battery power. One
passage criticizes textbooks that assert a calculator can be used in the
seventh grade to "prove" the irrationality of a number such as the square
root of 2. Instead, the guidelines say, students should master the precise
definition of irrational numbers, which are those numbers that cannot be
represented as an exact ratio of two integers.

In another blunt passage, the guidelines warn: "It is imperative that
students in the early grades be given every opportunity to develop a
facility with basic arithmetic skills without reliance on calculators."
However, at the last minute, the board backed off on a proposed
stance against any classroom use of calculators until sixth grade.
Board members said elementary teachers should be given some
discretion on lessons for mathematically gifted youngsters.

Wu, the UC Berkeley mathematician, said in an interview that he did not
want to discourage the judicious use of calculators, especially for advanced
studies in middle school and high school. In fact, the state of Virginia last
year purchased 200,000 graphing calculators for eighth-, ninth- and
10th-grade students. Computers, too, are beginning to play a wider role in
math teaching.

But, Wu said, there is no hard data to prove the benefits of calculators
and much anecdotal evidence to suggest that too many students lean on the
devices to conceal their defective knowledge. "The calculator is a powerful
instrument," Wu said. "It can do a lot of good, and it also has the
potential to do great harm."

But Anderson, president of the mathematics council, said that even primary
grade students can benefit from learning how to make machine-powered

"Calculators are very much a part of our world," Anderson said. "I think
calculators can be used to do some pretty sophisticated problem solving."
Copyright 1998 Times Mirror Company

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Students soon may return to doing computations with pencil
and paper instead of calculators. PHOTOGRAPHER: HELENA PASQUARELLA / 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)

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