Math Profs Rail Against Dist. 2 Methods

By Ronald Drenger

The Tribeca Trib
July/August 2001

As the school year wound down last month, the so-called "math wars" in School District 2 heated up.

A group of outraged parents held a forum on June 6 in the auditorium of the New York University School of Law, drawing about 300 people, mostly parents from District 2 and neighboring districts.

The event featured a panel of nine university mathematicians who sharply criticized the district's curriculum and math teaching methods, saying that it emphasizes "discovery" learning (children working in groups to find their own ways to solve problems) and at the expense of computational skills that are the foundation for higher-level math.

At the same time, the district launched an offensive of its own. At a school board meeting the preceding night, District 2 superintendent Shelley Harwayne released a four-page newsletter meant to dispel what she calls "myths" being circulated by the opposition.

District 2 School Board President Karen Feuer handed the newsletter to parents on their way into the forum. Beside her, two District 2 staff developers distributed an eight-page statement that aimed to shoot down the panel's arguments, and also criticized the panel for not being balanced.

Only one side was represented, forum organizers said, because the district refused to participate in a balanced event. In January, the school board canceled a promised math forum that was to include both sides of the debate.

The professors at the forum, five of them from NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said the curriculum doesn't prepare kids for high school and college entrance exams and course work, or for jobs in many technical fields. The curriculum does not even meet its own goals, they said, because teachers can't finish all the units during the school year.

"By the fifth grade, students fall roughly two years behind, said Wilfried Schmid, a Harvard professor and the father of a third-grader who attends a school using a "constructivist" curriculum also used in District 2.

"What we're calling for is a balance," said Sylvain Cappell, a Courant Institute professor, "Different modes of thinking about math and learning about math should get incorporated into the curriculum."

Proponents of the district's program, called TERC in grade school and CMP in middle school, say that the curriculum gives students a better grasp of math concepts than traditional approaches and that students do practice computation. District officials also point to its students standardized test results, which are among the bets in the city.

But parents at the forum lined up behind microphones to tell a different story.

"The city is guilty of educational neglect," said Stephanie Young, whose 11-year-old daughter attends PS 115.

"The district leaders have a mentality of a sect," asserted Laurence Lacoste-Brodsky, who complained that she has to supplement the math her son receives at East Side Middle School.

"I tried teaching my child algorithms the way we were taught, but the kids are resistant. They're not encouraged to use them," said Bruce Leiber, a parent at PS 290.

Kate Abell disagreed. The mother of sons at PS 3 and IS 89 and a teacher at PS 11, Abell praised the curriculum saying that her son "understands the relationship between numbers, not that you have to do it [one] way."

Some parents came to the forum undecided. Michael Kerring, whose daughter was completing kindergarten at PS 234, said he is trying to learn as much as possible about the math issue.

What my daughter is doing seems like fun, but I've heard concerns from some parents of kids in higher grades," he said. "This forum was informative, but I would like to hear some debate."

The forum came on the heels of critical columns in the New York Post ("New-New Math, Old-Old Idiocy," "Math wrath explodes amid 'fuzzy' furor,") and the release last month of a report by a commission created by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy to critique the city's math education. The report lends some support to cooperative and "discovery" methods used in District 2, but recommends that schools use a range of ways to teach math.

"In an environment where innovation competes with tradition for curriculum adoptions, it makes sense wherever possible to permit students and parents some degree of choice," the report states.

School Board President Feuer left the forum critical of the panel. "They used lots of scare tactics," she said. "There's a large disconnect between what the professors think they know and what is actually going on in District 2 schools."

But Sandra Forman, the mother of first and fourth graders in the district, called the forum "a treat."

"The best thing that came out of it," she said, "is that it validated that I'm not crazy."

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

Return to the NYC HOLD main page or to the News page or to the Letters and Testimony page.