Riverdale Press on Mathematics Controversy in NYC District 10

The Riverdale Press
March 28, 2002

Critics Say Math Curriculum Doesn't Add Up
By Marie Villani

Members of Community School Board 10 have just joined the battle over the art of teaching 1 + 1, but some parents say they have been fighting against the district's newest math program for years.

The 'constructivist' math curriculum for elementary and middle school students has been given the pejorative name "fuzzy math" by critics. It came under fire from the local school board at a meeting two weeks ago, when members aired their concerns to Superintendent Irma Zardoya.

Board members said they have been receiving numerous complaints from local parents, who are worried that their children aren't learning the basics of mathematics, such as multiplication tables.

The chorus grew so loud, the board said, it had to act."There seems to be such an attempt to disassociate from traditional math," said Ted Weinstein, the board's executive vice president. "It clearly doesn't give students the skills they need later in life."


About six years ago, schools in the district introduced the new curriculum, but it was used alongside more traditional teaching methods. Starting next fall, however, the district had hoped to see all elementary and middle schools begin a transition to exclusive reliance on 'constructivist' courses.

Sharply criticized by parents for the departure from rote learning, 'constructivism' dives into conceptualized learning allowing students to explore a number of answers and how to achieve them, instead of just memorizing, said Ron Feinstein, the district's new math director.

During the meeting, Mr Feinstein walked the board through a typical hour allotted for math in the early grades. At the elementary level, students get ten minutes of mini-lessons and demonstrations, 35 minutes of 'investigation' time where they are asked to solve a problem through various methods, and 15 minutes to reflect with the class on what they learned, Middle school is structured similarly, but students get a 90 minute block of math instead.

Mr Weinstein, who surfed the Internet to get his information on the curriculum, said the school board needs to start getting more concrete answers from the district.


But the board received much help on the subject after electing Robert Feinerman, the chairman of mathematics at Lehman College, who adamantly opposes the math program.

The controversial curriculum is referred to widely by a variety of names. Some call it TERC, using the name of the educational think tank that first developed it.

However, the official title for the kindergarten through fifth-grade program is Investigations in Number, Data and Space and for the sixth through eighth grades it is Connected Math Project (CMP), said a district spokesman.

Despite the district's plans to push for a transition to 'constructivism' several schools will most likely continue to complement it with more traditional programs, said one district official who wanted to remain anonymous.


To that Mr Weinstein countered, "I think they are just saying that because of all the complaints."

Several teachers and principals interviewed for this story supported 'constructivism,' saying it gets students "excited" about math, often one of the toughest subjects.

"Rote learning is the lowest form of learning," said David O'Neil, a fifth-grade teacher at PS 24. He said three out of five days will be spent using "Investigations," but that his course is often supplemented with what many would consider 'old math' with the use of textbooks.

"I think parents have a misunderstanding that the basics of math aren't being addressed," said David Parker, principal at the Robert J Christen School, PS 81. "That's not true," he said. Martin Minsky, a parent of a third-grader at PS 24, sent out a packet of scathing complaints regarding the curriculum to the district office and local press. But it wasn't the lack of rote learning he had concerns about. "The problem is not fuzzy math, but fuzzy English," said Minsky in an interview. He said the wording in many problems in his child's textbook were ungrammatical and confusing. Students are turned off by the program, he said.

And middle schoolers face an even larger problem, many say.


Daniel Jaye, assistant principal of mathematics at Stuyvesant High School, said that since students taking the Connected Math Program are not taught enough algebra in eighth grade, it often affects their placement in advanced classes.

Students at the David A Stein Riverdale School,MS/HS 141, are currently taking a math program called Math Thematics. But, said Principal Michael Taub, next year the school will switch over to CMP. The school usually sends the highest number of local students to Stuyvesant.

Four years ago the school attempted to implement the Connected Math Program, but said Steven Schwartz, a math teacher at the school, "People were unhappy about that."

The battle that is just beginning in District 10 was waged and won by parents in California. The state implemented the program in schools a decade ago. But after four years of parent protest, it was dropped in 1996.

It is unclear how many districts in New York City currently use the 'constructivist' approach but Manhattan's District 2, where Mr Feinstein taught before coming to the Bronx, has had its share of parent protests over the curriculum.

Marvin Bishop, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Manhattan College, said he finds some usefulness in the 'constructivist' program, but said for the most part, as a mathematician he feels it hurts students more than it helps.


"Just because your parents didn't do it that way, doesn't mean its not right," said Dr. Bishop. But, he continued, the program is more suitable for kindergarten students and first graders, since it lays the groundwork in an 'exciting' way.

Mr Weinstein says he's waiting for the district to present more information on the program before he calls another educational meeting.

Afterwards, if the board feels the program is just not suitable, it can invoke its authority to get rid of it. "I think it's the board's prerogative to study this and come to some conclusion as to what can be done," said Mr Weinstein.

Reproduced with permission from the March 28, 2002 issue of The Riverdale Press www.riverdalepress.com

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