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Topic: Portland, Oregon: The New Math
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Portland, Oregon: The New Math
Posted: Apr 26, 1999 10:38 PM
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[From the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), Sunday, April 18, 1999 ...
from Thomas Judson.]

Does the new 'new math' add up?

Portland schools set to conduct new 'whole math' experiment that puts problem-
solving and discovery before basic skills

By David Reinhard

Attention, Portland parents. Your new "new math" test is about to start.
right, we'll be asking about the approach to math instruction that Portland
Public Schools officials plan to put in every school. This is an approach to
math built on brainstorming and student discovery through game-playing, mind-
benders and essay-writing rather than problem drills and flash cards.

After The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond reported on the new approach the day the
school board was set to adopt it, parents flooded the district with phone
and e-mails. The board put off its decision for two weeks. But don't get
idea. The district is not seeking parental input. The delay was to provide
to tell parents about the new approach -- to pat parents on the head and tell
them to relax. In other words, it looks like public school parents are
going to
swallow the district's new "new math" whether they want to or not. So it's
probably time to see if you've mastered the approach that your guinea pigs
-- I
mean, your kids -- will experience.

Don't worry, you won't need a pencil or pen for this test. Heck, you won't
need a calculator. In the spirit of new curriculum, I'll even give the answers.


1. Is Portland heading off on its own?

"The district is essentially complying with the state math standards," says
Kremer, head of the Oregon Education Coalition, an education consumers group,
and author of an article on "whole math" in last May's Brainstorm magazine.
"This is not going to be just Portland, but eventually every Oregon district."

2. Where did this approach come from?

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published
"Curriculum Standards" that set out how math should be taught rather than what
specific knowledge and abilities students should master at each level of

3. What beliefs underlie the approach?

Teachers should spend less time teaching "symbol manipulation and computation
rules." Learning should be more student-initiated, with students learning math
by game-playing and working with manipulatives (blocks, beans, counting
orange slices). Rote memorization and drilling are out. Problem-solving and
calculators -- "Calculators must be accepted at the K-4 level" but any
efforts at mastering computation skills are counterproductive" -- are in.

4. Is the NCTM approach based on sound research?

The NCTM itself said its standards should be tested at pilot sites. Frank
emeritus professor of mathematics at Elmhurst College and an NCTM past
said, "NCTM leaders have urged the application, on a national scale, of highly
controversial methods of teaching before researchers have verified them by
controlled and replicated studies."

5. Why is it called "whole math?"

Like the "whole language" instruction that until recently had its grip on
Portland, the idea behind NCTM math is that problem-solving and discovery help
kids develop basic skills. The more traditional view holds that the
of basic skills -- phonetic decoding, number manipulation -- allows
learning. "They do this time and time again in progressive education," says
Kremer. "They put the cart before the horse."

6. Have parents whose kids have been subjected to this approach protested?

Yes. West Linn parents protested when results of this approach became apparent
there. In California, parent outrage caused the state board to chuck its NCTM-
based standards and replace them with more traditional and rigorous ones.

7. Who protested?

Math professors, engineers and others who use math for a living.

8. If parents don't like this way of teaching math, why do schools keep

"The beliefs of education professionals and parents almost always diverge,"
Kremer, citing a recent Public Agenda survey that examined the gap between what
parents think schools should teach and what education professors think.

9. What does the research say about the effectiveness of The Connected Math
textbook that Portland wants to introduce?

First, the research is done by the publishing company and not peer-reviewed.
Second, as Hammond reported, this research shows students "do no worse" a
of this nontraditional instruction. "Do no worse" -- now there's an

10. Why must Portland revamp its math instruction districtwide? Why can't it
give parents or principals a choice between traditional and nontraditional

Good questions. Kremer has an answer: "If parents had a choice, they
wouldn't be
choosing this approach for their kids."

Extra credit: Check out his Oregon Education Coalition's Web site on "whole
math" at
David Reinhard, associate editor, can be reached at 221-8152 or
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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