New York Newsday: New Math Gets Minus at Hearing

New York Newsday
November 6, 2003

The City Council's Education Committee grilled school officials yesterday over the new mandatory math curriculum known to critics as "fuzzy math" and to supporters as "comprehensive."

The curriculum, instituted in September as part of the school system's overhaul, offers an unconventional approach to a subject once centered unmistakably on numbers.

Now, with the city's "Everyday Mathematics" instructional program in the elementary schools, there is less focus on memorizing multiplication tables and more emphasis on understanding the theories behind them, school officials told Manhattan council member Eva Moskowitz, who chairs the education committee.

But the 3 1/2-hour hearing elicited more criticism than praise for the new approach.

Thomas Dooley, a firefighter from Sunnyside, told the committee he resented that his fourth-grade daughter was being used as a "guinea pig."

"I don't want people monkeying around with her future. The last two months she has learned absolutely nothing," he said.

Defending the curriculum, Linda Curtis-Bey, director of math and science for the Department of Education's division of teaching and learning, said the new approach reflected goals and criteria developed at universities and field-tested in classrooms.

"One model is more focused on memorization. Another one is more focused on the understanding of content," she said. "But one doesn't preclude the other."

Councilman G. Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) said he wanted proof of the curriculum's potential.

"I want to see an assessment of whether fourth-grade scores went up more in schools that used this program," he said, referring to some elementary schools that piloted the curriculum last year.

In 2002-03, the proportion of fourth-graders who passed their state math tests jumped 15 percentage points, to 66.7 percent.

A sticking point at the hearing was the department officials' contention that only 1 percent of math teachers remained uncertified, while numbers showed 28 percent uncertified as of December 2001.

Education Department spokeswoman Margie Feinberg last night recanted the 1 percent figure, saying officials reviewed the numbers and determined that 6.9 percent actually remained uncertified.

She said the state Department of Education last year introduced new ways to obtain certification, some of them for a limited duration.

Frank Gardella, executive director of the Hunter College Mathematics Center for Learning and Teaching, said in an interview after the hearing that teachers aren't being trained to teach math in the way the city now wants math to be learned.

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