School's Mathematics Don't Add Up

The New York Post
Sunday, April 8, 2001

By Rod Dreher

PHOTO TAINTED BOOKS: Parent activist Elizabeth Carson displays textbooks that tout "constructivist math" taught at TriBeCa's PS 234. - Joey Newfield

'I WALKED out of there, and I tell you, my head was spinning," the distressed caller told me. "It was like a cult. It was like they were selling Amway or something."

Where had this caller been the previous night? To a Mark Green rally? A Raelian workshop on cloning? A Learning Annex seminar?

No, the caller - who begged me not to disclose any identifying details, for fear of retribution - had been to a meeting about math instruction at PS 234, where the caller's child is a relatively new student.

PS 234, a primary school in TriBeCa, is at the forefront of the revolution in math instruction being carried out in more than half of New York City's schools. Community School District 2, in which PS 234 lies, is particularly committed to the program.

The district's approach to math instruction follows an egalitarian theory called "constructivist math," which is all the rage among the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and its supporters.

The idea is that children shouldn't learn basic techniques for adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying, which are believed to deaden enthusiasm for mathematics.

Rather, emphasis is placed on becoming familiar with math's conceptual underpinnings, and feeling good about numbers. Looking for the correct answer to a math problem is out; a "reasonable" answer is considered acceptable to constructivists.

Leading university mathematicians have joined parent groups in denouncing the constructivist method, saying that it's turning kids into math illiterates.

PS 234 has been at the vanguard of this teaching method in the city. It has also been ground zero for a local movement of parents desperately worried that their children are being harmed by this fad.

At Thursday night's session for parents, school personnel explained the teaching method. The meeting left my caller shell-shocked.

The next day, the parent telephoned Elizabeth Carson, a District 2 parent activist who has been fighting this new math lunacy for several years.

Carson ( and others have long tried, and failed, to get the district to agree to a public forum to discuss the pros and cons of constructivist math.

Ralph Raimi, an emeritus math professor from the University of Rochester, was to speak for the anti-constructivist side.

Raimi discovered that the National Science Foundation had authorized a $3.5 million grant to implement and study math "reform" in District 2 schools, along constructivist lines.

To Raimi, this meant public schoolchildren were being used as guinea pigs, and concerned parents never had a chance to be heard by the bought-and-paid-for school bureaucracy.

I left phone messages for PS 234 principal Anna Switzer, who is by reputation a fierce defender of the new math, and District 2 superintendent Shelly Harwayne. Neither got back to me.

Had they done so, they might have cited the relatively high math scores of District 2 schoolchildren, when compared to other city schools.

Parent activists, though, call these figures misleading. District 2 schools serve many of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods.

"It's pure demographics," said Carson. "Better-off families have their kids in these schools, and those families provide resources of all kinds to their kids, and that includes tutoring."

The parent who called me on Friday is learning that other PS 234 moms and dads constantly trade news about the best tutoring services so their kids won't be academically crippled.

Said the angry parent, "The idea that the home has to be turned into the school because the school is the testing ground for inane programs - that's frightening."


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