New Math - [New York CSD #2] Parents are up in arms over dysfunctional math curricula

Our Town
February 15, 2001

By Kiran Randhawa

Fury and frustration are just two of the things parents in Community School Board 2 are suffering after a year-long battle with promoters of "new math" curricula which they claim is failing their children.

The TERC (a leading education research and development organization) and CMP (Connected Math Project) curricula have slowly been introduced to all schools within District 2 over a four-year period. But parents are anxious about the ramifications of this approach.

Algorithms - a traditional set of rules for calculation or problem-solving - are a strictly "out of bounds" area for students in this program, said Elizabeth Carson, co-founder of New York Honest Open Logical Debate (NY-HOLD), a parent organization challenging the curriculum.

"The curricula do not use textbooks, so parents can't see what their kids are doing. But the program also rules out other ways of learning, focussing heavily on self-discovery learning," she said.

In a heated discussion last month, opponents of the program voiced their concerns to the board. But to no avail. Instead they were told that a math forum, which had been scheduled in order to discuss the curriculum in more depth, had been cancelled.

Mary Somoza, parent of two children in District 2 and the only member of Board 2 opposed to the TERC curriculum, expressed her anger at her fellow board members for ignoring the views of parents in the district.

"A lot of people won't know that there are problems with this program until it's too late," Somoza said. "It's annoyed me that fellow board members are towing the party line of the district office," she said. "But they will not keep me with my mouth closed. They are doing a great disservice to the parents of this district."

The curricula, which were endorsed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), were mandated in District 2 last year and use an approach claimed to be backed up by cognitive research.

Math Professor Fred Greenleaf of New York University said that studies have shown that children learn best when they undertake math problems and work through them as opposed to rote learning or mere memorization. But there is a growing concern among the math community that the curricula are denying children the chance to develop skills they must acquire in order to build a solid math foundation.

"Teachers are forbidden to instruct under this program, instead they become the guide on the side," said Greenleaf.

"This program is unworkable and too time consuming, and its forbidding students from using algorithms, it severely downplays the need for students to acquire skills they will later need for algebra. As a math professor, deficiencies among my students in algebra is one of the biggest problems I come across."

Greenleaf also explained that since the introduction of the curriculum, there has been a rise in private tutoring of children in the district to supplement children with more theory-based math knowledge.

But not everyone is displeased with TERC's approach to discovery learning. Two teachers at P.S. 40 on East 20th Street claim that it promotes advanced learning at a faster pace.

"We give the children math problems and then we give them a chance to come up with their own strategy," explained second grade teacher Melissa Getzels. "My kids are thrilled with the program. They are using reasoning skills and making amazing connections between math and literacy," she said.

First grade teacher Jennifer Hale said that TERC shows better results than those achieved from teaching from a traditional textbook. "We are practicing basic facts instead of using worksheets," she said. "There are many ways that work for you, not just one way, and children are using the strategy that is best for them."

Getzels added, "My kids are seeing math in other contexts, not just on a worksheet. They are coming up with their own rules, so we're seeing algebra in the first grade."

But Carson and other parents in the district insist that they will prevail in their campaign against the syllabus despite gridlock from the board.

"The districts have staked their reputations by buying into these programs," said Greenleaf. "They are prevailing with this because they have had a lot of funding to put into this through NSF grants."

Reproduced with permission from Our Town.

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