End the 'fuzzy math' experiment

The Riverdale Review
August 8-14, 2002


It has been more than three years since an insurgent group, primarily from the Riverdale area, took control of Community School District 10.

They ran on a platform not just to restructure and rezone MS 141, but rezone the entire district to promote the concept of neighborhood schools, to institute gifted and talented programs in every school and return autonomy on curriculum to local schools.

While the new board acted decisively on the issue of creating the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, on these other issues the board has been largely unsuccessful. With the clock running out on their very existence, it has never been more important for the board to act. They must act decisively and they must act boldly. The time is now, before the education of even more children are compromised.

The board has not been able to reverse many of the controversial educational policies of Superintendent Irma Zardoya, so often at odds with the time tested traditional values that most Riverdalians support. In fact, even as the board stood by, the superintendent slipped past them a particularly controversial program for the teaching of math, a program that has engendered enormous debate everywhere it has been tried.

The program in question is formally known as "constructivist" math, but is popularly called "fuzzy math," and for good reason. It is grounded in the mythology that different racial, ethnic and gender groups have different "learning styles," which is the reason that some dont score as well on standardized tests. Many of the states and school districts that adopted the controversial program have already long abandoned it. Just weeks ago, the North Pennsylvania School District joined the State of California and even the State of Israel in abandoning "fuzzy math." Unfortunately, there are still educators here who refuse to learn from the painful lessons offered by others.

There is no reliable empirical evidence that "fuzzy math" benefits children in any way. There IS significant evidence that the program may retard the potential of the highest achieving students. Those in charge of the math programs at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools do not conceal their disdain for "fuzzy math," and they warn that students coming to them with this background will almost certainly be consigned to the "slow track" in math. These mathematicians fear that the ability of these students to pursue careers in science and engineering that require advanced computational skills will also be compromised.

We cant escape the sinking feeling that the districts insistence on fuzzy math, or math for losers, is very much in line with their opposition to gifted and talented programs and refusal to put in place rigorous programs to assist students in attaining admission to specialized high schools.

Since Ms. Zardoya became superintendent, number of such admissions has declined by two-thirds, even as the district population increased by 25%. It is this insistence to "aim for the middle" that the school board must now address and reverse. This is not what our communitys aspirations are about. If we are to once again become a neighborhood known for its ceaseless pursuit of excellence in education, than a good first step will be to bring the ill-conceived experiment of replacing traditional instruction with "fuzzy math" to an end.

Ms. Zardoya never went to the school board, which is, after all, charged by the state educational law with the making district educational policy, to inform them of the enormous controversial change in the teaching of math that she unilaterally put into place. The complaints of parents and teachers, reported these past months in the pages of the Riverdale Review, has put this issue on the front burner, and the board is now, finally, addressing what has become a crisis.

Helping the process along was the selection of one of the citys best regarded experts on the teaching of math, Professor Robert Feinerman, to fill a vacancy on the school board. The chair of the Mathematics Department of Lehman College, Dr. Feinerman was chosen because of his expertise, and charged by his colleagues to come up with alternatives to a curriculum that has few advocates among parents and teachers.

Shortly after winning his post, Feinerman began a series of meetings with Superintendent Zardoya, in the vain hope that he could convince her to moderate her views. These meetings broke down last month. It is now time for the School Board to fulfill their mandate under state law.

Ms. Zardoya has told the board that they do not have the legal power to mandate specific programs. She is dead wrong. The law is clear. There is no limitation in the power of the board to make policy in either a general or specific manner, other than that their policy not conflict with central board policy. When last we looked, the teaching of traditional mathematical computation was still permitted by the Board of Education.

We recall an earlier instance when Ms. Zardoya told a previous board that the rezoning of MS 141 was illegal, and she produced an "opinion" from a Board of Ed bureaucrat to back her position. She was wrong then, just as shes wrong now.

If Community School Board 10 needs to take her to court to enforce the program they mandate, they should be prepared to do so.

Prof. Feinerman learned a bitter lesson these past months about the ideological inflexibility of the district administration. He also learned that despite protestations that the district is following a "balanced" approach, a visit to the District 10 website reveals that the district is following a 100% "constructivist" program both in the curriculum outlined for students and the professional development it offers to teachers. Finally, he learned that teachers feel threatened by the district and are afraid to openly express their opposition to being forced to teach using unproven methods they dont believe in.

We would be most comfortable if the school board ordered the superintendent to fully restore traditional math instruction to the district. At the very least, they could mandate a program that first teaches children traditional computational methods and stresses those methods, which can be then be supplemented by constructivist instruction in problem solving. This is what is done in School District 8, which routinely outperforms District 10 in math.

The future of our children is too important to be sacrificed on the alter of an experimental "politically correct" mathematics program. On behalf of the potential future scientists and engineers attending District 10 schools, we beg the school board to do right by them.

Reproduced with permission from the Riverdale Review.

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