San Antonio Express News (Texas), Sunday, February 21, 1999
By Rick Casey
Are the traditionalists mathematically right?
As if they weren't already busy enough trying to purify the state bureaucracy, privatize VIA's bus operations and revolutionize the Texas public school system through vouchers, our friends at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation have taken on another task.
They want to teach your children math.
Well, actually, they don't want to do the teaching themselves. They just want to tell your children's math teachers how to teach.
TPPF has become, in effect, the Texas arm of a California-based movement called "Mathematically Correct." This organization wants to take America back to traditional ways of teaching math methods based on teaching kids the right formulas so they can get the right answers.
The group accuses the "educational establishment," and particularly the National Science Foundation, of using soft-headed, feel-good methods that dumb down the curriculum.
TPPF officials have gone before editorial boards, lobbied school boards over textbook selection and made the case for "classical" math education through their Web site.
In a recent op-ed piece in this newspaper, Anne Newman, president of the San Antonio-based Texas Family Research Center, cited the TPPF Web page in arguing for traditional math. Well she should. Much of her piece was taken from the Web site.
She criticized a training program in which teachers were tossed a beach ball printed as a globe and asked to remember where their right indexes were when they caught it. This was an example of an exercise in which students could learn probabilities--in this case, the probability of a meteorite crashing on land as opposed to water.
Mathematically Correct named themselves, apparently with no sense of irony. They have several things in common with the left-wing politically correct.
Both include intelligent, well- intentioned people. Both are ideologically based. Both are intolerant of those who think differently.
And while the politically correct have an idealized view of the future, Mathematically Correct has an idealized view of the past.
If you're old enough to have been taught under traditional methods, as I am, just ask yourself this: Was math a subject in which your average classmate felt he or she could perform well? Or was math considered the sole domain of the brainiest?
Mathematically Correct cites studies to show the superiority of traditional math teaching, but were the good old days really that good? And are present methods really that bad?
Maybe California math went buggy, but it's not so clear that national performance has. One of the most ambitious measurements is the SAT, which most college-bound seniors take. A substantially higher percentage of seniors take the test today than in 1972. Because of that, you would expect scores to go down. The average verbal score has, from 530 in 1972 to 505 in 1998.
But the average math score has gone up 3 points to 512. In Texas, the results are better. While Texas seniors held verbal skills even from 1988 to 1998, their average math score jumped 11 points.
We're still below the national average, but we're moving in the right direction.
Improvement among Texas fourth- and eighth-grade students on another standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has been among the best in the nation since 1990.
That's why I'd like Anne Newman to meet Melinda Rodriguez, who has taught math at elementary and middle schools and now teaches ninth-grade algebra at Lee High School.
More importantly, I'd like the school boards that will be selecting textbooks (and thereby curricula) in the next few weeks to meet Rodriguez.
(Later, in another column, I'd like you to meet Rodriguez.)
I don't know if Rodriguez uses beach balls (though she took the workshop), but she uses such methods as having kids chart the number of jumping jacks they can do minute-by-minute for five minutes. She has them punch a hole in a cup of water and measure the rate of leakage, then go home and calculate how much such a leak would cost on their water bills.
In other words, she teaches just the way Newman and Mathematically Correct find abhorrent. The latest results: 70 percent of her students passed the statewide end-of-course exam, including 60 percent of her special education students.
By comparison, 39 percent (not including special ed) passed statewide in 1998. But that figure is up from 28 percent in 1996.
So before TPPF and their friends fix this problem, let's make sure it's broke.
--------------------------------- From the Web site:
TPPF-"Providing the intellectual ammunition for a better Texas."
****************************************** * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: email@example.com