Get Mad, Then Go After the Bureaucrats

The New York Post
April 17, 2001

By Rod Dreher

April 17, 2001 -- HERE'S how you become angry: Read up on what many New York public schools are doing to math education, and how permanently crippled our kids will be because of this "constructivist" fad.

Here's how you become a radical: Try talking to school authorities about your concerns.

If you're a parent, they treat you like an idiot.

"It's the same mindset as policemen who don't want to be told they're wrong," one mom says. "They roll their eyes when you go in there."

If you're a teacher, you're a pariah.

"The bureaucracy is afraid to listen to common sense," a veteran Bronx teacher says.

These people beg me not to publish their names for fear of retribution. Is this North Korea, or what?

Paul Clopton understands. He's been in the California math-war trenches for six years.

He helped found Mathematically Correct (, a grass-roots coalition of parents, university mathematicians and other reformers who have been fighting fuzzy math in California's public schools tooth-and-nail. "The first lesson is, the battle never ends," Clopton says. "It goes on forever. No matter what you do, they'll try to find ways to subvert it."

But Clopton has a few hints for parents organizing here, through activist Elizabeth Carson ( and others.

1. Don't be intimidated.

"If you're a lone parent going in, the first thing they'll tell you is nobody else complained," Clopton says. "The next thing they'll say is these things are best left up to the professionals, even if - in some of these places - the parents are more educated in mathematics than educational professionals." Clopton says not to worry about recriminations against the children. If your group is large enough and vocal enough, this won't happen.

2. Don't believe the hype.

When a parent complains that her child isn't learning basic math, the school's first response is to show them standardized test scores, supposedly proving the school is doing a good job. "But the truth is, the data aren't clean," says Clopton. "The data are infected with demographic variables, plus the fact that lots of kids learn basic math in tutoring programs outside the school."

3. Target your activism.

"You turn to the points where the decisions are being made: the boards responsible for the decisions," he says. "You're not going to have much luck with principals and education folk."

4. Enlist the support of professional mathematicians.

"They can trump the mathematical expertise of district-level math education personnel," Clopton says. In California, university-level math instructors never paid attention to K-12 math education until they began to notice the quality of the undergraduates go down. Now they're an integral part of the fight.

5. Don't open yourself up to "divide and conquer" tactics.

Constructivist math is in part based on a bizarre theory that traditional arithmetic is biased toward white males. Its defenders will often accuse parents of being religious crazies, racists, sexists and elitists.

"Our group is mostly Democratic, but telling them that didn't stop the attacks," Clopton said.

The parents agreed to keep all other political and cultural issues out of their discussions.

"Our main focus is to stick to the content: math," he says. "Do these kids really need to know long division, or don't they? That's not a racist or sexist perspective. That's simple arithmetic."

Has this approach succeeded in California? Yes, for the most part. Not every battle has been won - yet. But the cost of not fighting is staggering.

Says Clopton, "If a kid gets to sixth or seventh grade and doesn't know how to multiply, it's pretty much lost for him."


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