Search for solution to math problem

Town and Village
August 24, 2000

By Linda Barr

It may be the most important skill taught in the New York public school system, one that will determine whether children excel in the fields of science and technology, yet math - or more importantly, the way it is being taught in District 2 - just isn't adding up for many parents.

Three years ago, the District was among a handful of the more adventurous in the city to set out to tackle the math phobia that afflicts many students.

'Constructivist math' preaches that it is more important for children to construct their own solutions to mathematical problems than to learn the standard rules - from multiplication tables to the value of pi- handed down through the centuries. Instead rote memorization of math facts, students are encouraged to estimate answers or to use calculators.

It's come to be known as "new math" although critics have labeled it everything from "fuzzy math" to "math-lite."

Long ranked near the top of the city in mathematics, the district has held its place. Although there is still a disparity in test scores between the poorest schools and the more affluent ones, the district's math superintendent, Lucy West said District 2 is leading the movement to meet the standards set by the state "and its all because of standards-based math," as she calls it.

West said, "Its standards-based mathematics designed to meet the more demanding standards set by the city and state. These standards are rigorous and focused on developing an understanding of math, not just being able to do it by rote. You apply certain idea of how to explain the thinking and logical reason as to why something works or doesn't work, it's a problem-solving based approach to math."

Just returned from an international conference on math, West said she was convinced constructivist math was the way forward, adding, "In many countries, such as Japan and Singapore [traditionally high scoring nations] they are changing their curriculum and teaching methodology."

But many parents are not convinced and what began as playground conversations of just what was going on in the local classrooms has developed into a full-fledged campaign to solve this problem once and for all.

Elizabeth Carson, chair of the District 2 Parents Math Committee, whose 12-year-old son Nicholas is a student of "new math," said, "There is now a claim of emphasis on conceptual understanding, while basic skills mastery is de-emphasized. They [the board of education]will argue that's not true, but the language of the standards the programs are built from, definitely suggests that teachers are, at the very least, to spend far less time on drill and practice than in the past; and the message is left to broad interpretation - as to how much time should be spent on game playing and creative problem solving and how much time should be devoted to teaching and applying standard math to problems, and repetitive practice.

"The result is that parents are left with the responsibility of educating their kids in math skills with work books, private tutors, and learning centers."

Carson claims that the refusal by the board to acknowledge the importance of teaching simple computation may doom 22,000 students in 44 District 2 schools alone to remedial levels.

"The majority may be condemned to enter high school without basic computational skills because they are not being taught important skills, such as how to multiply two digit numbers or how to divide fractions," she said.

"Walk into any playground and mention math, there is strong reaction from parents. I know that some teachers throughout the district are providing supplementary guidance to parents, suggesting they buy workbooks or traditional textbooks and, from class to class, and school to school, the teaching methods vary widely, depending on the experience of the teacher. The irony is, this initiative was supposed to create a comprehensive K through 12th grade math program where kids could move from one grade to the next, or even to a different district school and be in the right place in programs aligned and with similar teaching."

Carson first noticed the change in her son's education when he was required to sit for hours on rugs in circles rather than given a desk, and was not asked to practice or master elementary math skills.

Meanwhile the math superintendent says the labeling of the practice as "fuzzy math" is as much to blame for the confusion. "That's what's got everyone so emotional," she said.

"We all agree that kids need to know how to compute, how to do multiplication, add, subtract and divide and the way we are now teaching is based on years of research on how people best learn. We have been working with educators from the internationally renowned Freudenthal Institute in the Netherlands to help us upgrade instruction in this country and, so far, our test scores are showing it is working."

While she agrees the parents have rallied the support of some noted mathematicians - including seven Nobel Laureates and Fields Medal winners, the department heads of more than a dozen universities, including Stanford and Yale, and physics professors from UC Berkeley and Princeton, to name a few - West said, "There are also many mathematicians who were involved in writing the standards who are very much in support of the changes. One of the problems is that people are not talking to each other rationally. It has become rhetoric and that is not helping the situation."

She conceded that teachers need more support themselves in understanding math and said District 2 now has "a very intensive professional development program providing many opportunities," for teachers.

She said parents meetings were also being organized across the District to help parents understand the program and how to work with their children.

"The big objection parents have is that they don't know how to help kids with their homework," explained West.

"This math looks different, appears to not have enough instruction and practice. This year we are creating a homework package to help parents and students that is more understandable to everybody.

"We have been watching as we go what is working and what is not and we remain flexible in changing and refining what we are doing so we are sure that it makes sense for kids and parents."

Studies by the organization Math in the City, funded by the national Science Foundation, have shown a marked improvement in test scores among kids taught constructivist math. Catherine Fosnot, professor of education and principal investigator for Math in the City, said, "We found that in grades three, four and five there were significant differences in classrooms. There were significant differences in favor of our kids [constructivist students] on number relations, measurements, geometry and data, highly significant [differences] on problem solving. There was no significant difference in computation and operations - the mean score was higher, but not significantly different."

The group followed up with a test where they analyzed children's strategies, giving them numbers which could be solved in many different ways, and looked to see what their strategies were.

Fosnot said she understood many parents' concerns because the new math is so different from the way they were taught.

However, she added, "The world has changed dramatically in that time - parents understand it in terms of procedure and roting. In today's world we are adding up long columns of addition - we are doing math all the time dealing with two and three numbers and coming up with an answer much quicker without having to grab a calculator.

"What we are doing is giving people with a strong number sense the ability to understand numbers in such a deep way that they can compose and decompose, and that's not the way most parents were taught."

However, many parents, such as Carson, remain unconvinced. She said the effects of the math programs are only now beginning to be felt here after five years of the new teaching.

At a national level, "The number of technical degrees awarded to US citizens is approximately 28,000 a year, although there are an estimated 100,000 new jobs in these area available every year," Carson wrote in a recent report.

"And so, since we do not train our own, we import educated talent from abroad.

"Last year, Congress was forced to provide 142, 500 new visas for foreign nationals with high-tech skills for the three years from 1999 to 2001."

Quoting President Bill Clinton, she wrote, "In a world without math, the next generation of computers goes undeveloped, bridges and skyscrapers go unconstructed, the Internet is shut down and opportunities for tomorrow are never realized."

"One would think that math would be the last area we would allow to be turned over to school bureaucrats, whose almost evangelical promotion of the latest math reform seems to have gone far astray of the primary goal to educate our children."

Reproduced with permission from Town and Village.

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