[From the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), Sunday, April 18, 1999 ... from Thomas Judson.] *********************************************************** (Editorial)
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. That's 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 calls and e-mails. The board put off its decision for two weeks. But don't get wrong idea. The district is not seeking parental input. The delay was to provide time 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 even 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 Rob 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 school.
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 sticks, orange slices). Rote memorization and drilling are out. Problem-solving and calculators -- "Calculators must be accepted at the K-4 level" but any "further 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 Allen, emeritus professor of mathematics at Elmhurst College and an NCTM past president said, "NCTM leaders have urged the application, on a national scale, of highly controversial methods of teaching before researchers have verified them by well- 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 acquisition of basic skills -- phonetic decoding, number manipulation -- allows higher-order 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 pushing it?
"The beliefs of education professionals and parents almost always diverge," says 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 result of this nontraditional instruction. "Do no worse" -- now there's an endorsement.
10. Why must Portland revamp its math instruction districtwide? Why can't it give parents or principals a choice between traditional and nontraditional approaches?
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 http://www.oregoneducation.org. --------------- David Reinhard, associate editor, can be reached at 221-8152 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ******************************************************* * 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