The Great Mathematics Experiment – III

By Enakshi Choudhuri

Is there change on the cards?

Change may be here at last and it is not the “change” that the different presidential candidates have been expounding upon everyday for the past few weeks and months. The change I am talking about is taking place in the corridors of the U.S. Department of Education, which has awakened from its deep slumber and realized that the new ‘fuzzy math’ is not working as well as they had thought it would.  It has taken twenty five years of math wars between parents, teachers and school administrators and repeated international trend studies indicating that American students are “mediocre at math”  to spur into action a National Mathematics Advisory Panel that put together their report after examining over 16,000 research publications and studies.

Their report, “Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel”  advocates what many parents have been pushing for all these years. Spiraling math programs such as Everyday Math that “revisit topics year after year without bringing them to closure should be avoided” and that students should be encouraged to “develop immediate recall of arithmetic facts to free the ‘working memory’ for solving more complex problems” and so on and so forth. The pitfalls of the ‘fuzzy math’ programs (see my previous posts for this) have finally been recognized, and it is my fervent hope that this report will push school districts across the country to re-evaluate their math curricula and teaching methods to bring about the change that is necessary for our children to have a fighting chance of being competitive in a global arena.

This January, the Texas Board of Education,  voted to reject Everyday Math in third grade classrooms, because if did not cover multiplication adequately and relied extensively on calculators at a very early stage.  "What happens in Texas has ramifications for the whole country," a longtime Texas activist for traditional curricula, Donna Garner, said. "It's a huge movement."  The same article explains that since Texas is the nation’s second largest textbook market, it sets the market trends for publishers and schools. The Texas Board of Education was responding in part to complaints from colleges in Texas who complained that incoming freshmen lacked basic math and algebra skills and many had to be enrolled in remedial math classes. In Illinois, for example, the West Aurora school district in the Chicago area, Perry County districts 204 and 300, and a few others have decided to adopt the Saxon method as their math curriculum. 

In researching this topic, I found that across states there were just a handful of school districts adopting ‘non-constructivist’ math curriculums owing to strong parental or teacher concerns over the reform curriculums.  I was hard-pressed to find any material on states that have rejected the curriculum outright, other than Texas for 3rd grade. On the other hand, many private schools across the country do not use Everyday Math or related math curriculums owing to their obvious disadvantages. Most use strong curriculums such as Saxon or Singapore math or Core-Knowledge (a multi-subject curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch based on imparting solid, specific, shared, and sequenced knowledge to children).  

I am hopeful that the March 2008 report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel comes as a wake-up call for schools across the country.  For a long time, public school districts across the country, have been slow to realize the consequences of subscribing to a constructivist makeover of what is an objective ‘numbers and fact-oriented’ field of study. Perhaps a big part of their decision has to do with the financial advantages of using reform math curriculums. Public schools are largely dependent upon funding from state and local sources and receive a very small percentage of federal monies. The National Science Foundation has over the years provided millions in grants to school districts and universities willing to implement constructivist math curriculums, such as Everyday Math, Investigations Math, Mathscape, CorePlus Math, etc and their respective teacher training programs.

When a math curriculum that is heavily funded by one of the premier science foundations in the country and backed by the National Council for Teachers in Mathematics (NCTM) is presented for implementation in a school district many districts would find it difficult to reject such an offer. I read about many school districts that decided to go ahead with the new reform math curriculums despite parental dissension. At this point I really cannot understand their motivation to continue to implement a program that has received opposition, other than the most obvious one: money. I guess money does make the world go around!

Another issue that I stumbled upon during my research on this topic is that states are rewriting their state comprehensive tests so that the material will be more aligned with the new reform math curriculums adopted in the public schools.  A reader on Michele Malkin’s column on Fuzzy Math in the New York Post commented that scores on the Pennsylvania state comprehensive tests (PSSA)  were rising while SAT scores were falling which was to be expected because the state standards had been rewritten to be aligned with the Everyday Math curriculum.  The SAT, a reliable and valid standardized test for college admissions, is not aligned with constructivist math programs and requires a very solid grasp of mathematics that most graduates of integrated programs lack. It is common knowledge that many reputable colleges and universities across the country prefer to use SAT scores rather than scores on state tests for admission.

In the school district I live in, students who take AP math classes or the University of Minnesota’s high school math program are generally the only ones to attempt the SAT. Both programs cater to advanced math students and teach a far more traditional style of mathematics. So what does this all mean for us parents who have to contend with ‘fuzzy’ math on a regular basis? What can we do other than sending our kids to a private or charter school that does not use ‘reform’ math curriculums?

I guess my answer to that would be to explore supplemental math programs, drill at home and cross your fingers that your child tests into the AP math courses in high school. At least that is what I plan on doing until I can come up with a better plan. In her Montessori school, my daughter loved math. One year of exposure to Everyday Math and she has developed a mental block towards math. I have recently enrolled her in Kumon classes, where I hope she will develop self-confidence in mastering basic mathematical skills that set the stage for algebra and calculus, something she may not get in the constructivist math curriculum at school. My daughter may never choose a math-related major in college, but I want her to be able to complete high school with a solid mathematics background so that her choices for college majors are not circumscribed by the mathematics curriculum that her school district had chosen to implement 12 years ago.

Next week we have a curriculum meeting with my daughter’s class teacher. I have expressed some of my concerns to her and I hope she will address them. Her class teacher mentioned that when she started learning how to teach Everyday Math she was wholly oppose
d to it. Now she enjoys teaching math using this ‘reform’ curriculum and finds that the kids do very well. I was quite taken aback by her statement. As you know, in my previous posts I have highlighted some of the serious pitfalls of this system and its consequences. It is common knowledge that the US was once a world leader with respect to higher-education participation and the education of its workforce, but is now at the middle or bottom of the list of industrialized nations on most measures of education, including mathematics. If this reform curriculum is truly superior why hasn’t it been reflected in performance? Why is this curriculum better than the old traditional curriculum and why have schools across the country been so eager to implement it (money needs aside)?  In my next post I will address some of these issues. Until then I hope to hear from readers about their strategies for dealing with ‘fuzzy’ math.

Other posts by Enakshi on math education in the US:

The Great Mathematics Experiment: What Are Your Alternatives?

The Great Mathematics Experiment: ‘Real World’ Math

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