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Topic: [ME] Math Wars
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ME] Math Wars
Posted: Jan 5, 2000 11:28 AM
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From the Wall Street Journal (New York), January 4, 2000, p. A22 -- Editorial

REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial)


Math Wars

So you've got thirteen,
And you take away seven,
And that leaves five...
...Well, six actually.
But the idea is the important thing.
-- "New Math"
By Tom Lehrer (1965)

Reinventing math is an old tradition in this country. It has been around at
least since the 1960s, when the inimitable Tom Lehrer mocked the New Math
in Berkeley cafes. Even Beatniks understood that a method that highlights
concepts at the expense of plain old calculation would add up to trouble.
And, as it happened, the New Math's introduction in schools across the
country coincided with the onset of a multi-year decline in math scores.

Today the original New Math is old hat, but many folks in the education
world are hawking yet another reform. It is known by names like "Connected
Math," or "Everyday Math." Not surprisingly, the New New Math has a lot in
common with the Old New Math. Like its forerunner, it focuses on concepts
and theory, scorning textbooks and pencil-and-paper computation as "rote
drill." And like its forerunner, today's New Math has powerful allies.
Education Secretary Richard Riley and other Clintonites smile on it. Eight
of the 10 curriculums recently recommended for nationwide use by an
influential Education Department panel teach the New New Math.

Not that all members of the Academy are joining the movement. Within weeks
of the Education Department findings, 200 mathematicians and scientists,
including four Nobel Prize recipients and two winners of a prestigious math
prize, the Fields Medal, published a letter in the Washington Post
deploring the reforms. More are now rallying on an opposition Website

And well they might. For programs of the sort picked by the federal panel
turn out to be horrifyingly short on basics.

Consider MathLand, which won a "promising" rating from the panel. Its
literature says it focuses on "attention to conceptual understanding,
communication, reasoning and problem solving." This sounds harmless, but
consider: MathLand does not teach standard arithmetic operations. No
carrying and borrowing at the blackboard here. Instead, children are
supposed to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add,
subtract, multiply and divide. This detour is necessary, the handbook
informs, to spare youngsters the awful subjugation of "teacher-imposed
rules." Next comes Connected Math, another panel favorite. It too skips or
glosses over crucial skills. Example: The division of fractions, an
immutable prerequisite for algebra, is absent from its middle-school
curriculum. In shutting the door to algebra, David Klein of Cal State
Northridge points out, "Connected Math also closes doors to careers in
engineering and science for its graduates."

Finally there is Everyday Math. No textbooks here, either. Everyday Math
ensures juvenile dependency to calculators by endorsing their use from
kindergarten. Rather than teach long division, the program devotes
substantial time to that important area of math study, self-esteem. A Grade
5 worksheet asks students to fill in the blanks on the questions below:

A. If math were a color, it would be ________, because ______.

B. If it were a food, it would _______, because _____.

C. If it were weather, it would be ______, because, _______.

We'll allow a pause here for primal screams.

And then move on to the main question: Why? The reason for the New New
Math, as for many other curriculum reforms, is that teachers, school
administrators and their unions are tired of being blamed for statistical
declines and poor student performances. So with math, as in their campaign
to dumb down the SAT, such educators work to destroy or reject the
standards that brought them trouble in the first place. Children are
different nowadays, goes the line, and cannot be measured by old benchmarks.

New Mathie and federal panel member Steven Leinwand explains: "It's time to
recognize that, for many students, real mathematical power, on the one
hand, and facility with multidigit pencil-and-paper computational
algorithms, on the other, are mutually exclusive." Or, as Professor Klein
translates: "Underlying their programs is an assumption that minorities and
women are too dumb to learn real mathematics."

Fortunately, America is not France, where a central government controls
every aspect of schooling down to the color of the paper clips. Localities
and states write their own curriculums, and can and do fight back against
the New Math. California for example, reversed a calculator-friendly policy
in grammar schools after scores dropped precipitously. Resource-rich
families, too, one suspects, will find ways to compensate for what trendy
schools omit. Still, New Math will take its casualties, especially among
the poor, adding to the already mounting costs of the decline in national
educational standards.
Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Jan 4, 2000

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)


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