Save us from the 'new-new math'

The Boston Globe
April 21, 2001

By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON PARENTS IN New York City have begun pounding at the schoolhouse doors, demanding that educators cease and desist in their efforts to afflict children with something called ''constructivist'' mathematics - also known as the ''new-new math.''

Here's the theory behind the pedagogical pet rock: Kids learn best not from teachers, but from each other. They speak the same language, employ the same intellectual models, share the same view of the world. That being the case, teachers ought to seek out one bright kid, pass on a few concepts and wait for the insight to trickle from the smart kid's brain to all the others.

You can find evidence of this thinking in many classrooms. You'll notice that desks no longer are arrayed in rows. Instead, instructors group them in clusters of four or six, so kids can look at each other while the teacher yawps from some nearby chalkboard.

The other lynchpin of the new-new math is the notion that schools can't teach unless they first pump students full of self-esteem. It's no secret that youngsters seldom feel a surge of fulfillment when working through grinding exercises in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division or a combination of the above, especially if teachers expect them to get each and every cipher right. Who has fond recollections of word problems involving trains moving from far-flung stations at different speeds?

So constructivist math suggests an alternative: Heap praise on kids if they get close. Theorists say precision matters less to young minds than developing comfort with their ordinals and cardinals. The new-new crew thus recommends letting students ''discover'' their own personal methods for performing simple calculations. Don't make them memorize tables. Stimulate their imaginations. Urge them to develop ''strategies'' and ''models'' - in effect, to create homemade methods for grasping truths that appeared only after lifetimes of arduous labor by such geniuses as Euclid, Newton, Leibniz, Euler, and Reimann.

Let's pick this apart for a moment. A few years ago, educators were enamored with a concept called ''attention deficit disorder.'' Every time a restive child fired a spitball toward the blackboard, yawned or played a practical joke, educators would diagnose ADD - a condition considered annoying but treatable.

These days, educators assume every kid has ADD - that the average child has the attention span of a gecko on a hotplate and that this crisis in concentration demands an unprecedented approach to instruction. So what is the secret of this new method? Teachers encourage kids to estimate, not calculate and to feel a sense of intellectual hauteur even though they cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide. This is ebonics with an equals sign.

Another through-the-looking-glass feature: It used to be that kids learned about sex from the kids next door and received mathematical instruction from trained adults. Now, it's the opposite. You learn about condoms from the teacher and about deMorgan's Theorem from Johnny and Jane. We thus have replaced teaching with solipsism: The kids are the fountains of their own wisdom, and teachers are there merely to facilitate the maieutic magic. California adopted the approach wholesale in the 1980s, and its mathematical achievement scores collapsed. Parents rebelled, and the new-new fad began to fade. Now, New Yorkers are getting a bellyful, and parents are no happier there than were their Golden State counterparts.

There's one final relevant aspect of New-Newism: The curriculum is designed to address the failure to teach mathematics to girls and ethnic minorities - not by creating high expectations, but by abandoning standards. David Klein of California State University at Northridge wrote last year in a Brookings Institution study, ''The view that African-Americans, Latinos and girls have `learning styles' ... different from the learning style of white males ... has contributed to the creation and widespread use of low quality mathematics textbooks and curricula in the US.''

It has come to this. Americans once counted on schools to imbue students with knowledge and ambition. Teachers routinely challenged youngsters and scolded, ''You can do better than this!'' That's increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule, though. We have replaced elitism with dull uniformity; rigor with smile buttons; pride in accomplishment with pride in showing up.

And there's a price to pay. Ask yourself: Who would you prefer to have operating on you - a surgeon driven by perfectionism or one taught through the years that exactitude isn't everything, and that even the most miserable performance is worth a gold star and a hug?

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

This story ran on page 15 of the Boston Globe on 4/21/2001.
C Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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