Parents and teachers search for solution to math problems

Town and Village
January 18, 2001

Linda Barr

Almost four years after it was first introduced, the subject of "new math" continues to create a divide between many parents and educators.

Fed-up with mounting costs of tutors they say are "filling the math gap" their kids find themselves in, members of NYC Hold (Honest Open Logical Debate on math reform) have accused both the Board of Education and District School Board 2 of being "in denial" over parents' concerns about the way math is being taught.

And they say worried moms and dads are being forced to become more aggressive in their opposition to a math curriculum they believe is selling their children short.

"The board is compelling parents to become more aggressive, more politically active to fight for what we feel is necessary," said Elizabeth Carson, co-founder of the group.

The campaigning parents are opposed to the 'constructivist math' which 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 of rote memorization of math facts, students are encouraged to estimate answers or t use calculators under a system which has come to be known as "new math," although critics have labeled it everything from "fuzzy math" to "math-lite."

Almost four years ago, School District 2 was among a handful of the more adventurous in the city to set out to tackle the math phobia that afflicts many students.

Long-ranked near the top of the city in math, the district has held its place with 76 percent of 4th graders meeting State standards and 49 percent of 8th graders meeting the standards.

The test results, says, District Math Superintendent, Lucy West, show the local children are "highly out-performing" their counterparts elsewhere in the city and show the system is working.

While West admits there is room for improvement, she said," I know the mathematics that students are learning and it is really of a very high caliber. What they are able to do and demonstrate their knowledge f, is remarkable.

"There are things we have to work on and we are working on them. But it is remarkable what the students can do now. They enjoy math discussion and their skills and problem solving abilities are being demonstrated every day."

However, concerned that their kids are being short-changed by a system they claim many parents do not understand, NYC HOLD called for a major forum to be held this spring, bringing together math experts, teachers and parents, to try to come up with a solution, to everyone's satisfaction.

The parents have now accused the school board of reneging on that deal. According to Carson, "They made a commitment last spring [to hold a major forum] and have since decided that was not a good idea. They feel satisfied that they are being adequately responsive to parent concerns so there is no need to give parents the opportunity to gather and express their views to a panel of proponents and opponents.

"I think that, first and foremost, it is offensive that the school board doesn't recognize the value of providing parents opportunity to gather to share views, ask questions and hear from experts in the subject of math and math education.

"They are still in a state of denial that there is widespread concern. They have not, to my knowledge, investigated parent concern in any substantive way - school board meetings are very poorly attended."

Carson conceded that the board of education had organized a series of school based math nights for parents to help them understand the system, but she added," It is not the kind of forum parents are now asking for. It is not the bets place to engage in the kind of discussion we've requested. We want to have a deeper look at the problem through a forum and believe parents should be surveyed district-wide to find out what they are doing to supplement their kids math education outside of school."

The parent advocate claimed, "They're afraid to convene parents - they don't want parents meeting in large groups, they find it threatening. But, if we don't openly discuss the problems, I don't know how we can adequately address them."

The next scheduled public session of School Board 2 will take place on January 30 when. According to Karen Feuer, parents will be encouraged to express their views and math experts will also be on hand to discuss the issue.

And she said the spring forum had not been cancelled, simply postponed. "The superintendent (Lucy West) is aggressively going out and doing research on a school-by-school basis to find out exactly what parent concerns are. She is surveying parents and attending every math night so she can hear for herself what parents are bringing to the table. We have postponed any forum until after she has completed her research."

Explaining how the curriculum was introduced three years ago with an alignment of K-through 12 so that continuity of instruction was maintained, Feuer said there was no evidence to suggest that the new math was not meeting the needs of students.

However, she conceded, "There are adjustments that need to be made and with the superintendent's research she'll be able to pinpoint where these adjustments need to be made." As well as meeting parents, teachers and principals, West is examining homework schedules, educational materials for parents and the acquisition of basic skills that should be included in the curriculum. "When she has done this," added Feuer, 'she will have a better sense of what type of forum can really address the key concerns of parents. We are not in denial. We are totally aware of what the issues are.

"It boils down to a difference in ideology - a traditional versus constructivist perspective - and I think that, unless both sides agree to a balance in approaches, the fight will wage on."

Meanwhile, math superintendent said she recently took two "outspoken opponents" of the new system into her classrooms.

"They are math experts," she said, "and they were impressed by what they saw in the classrooms. They saw that the kids are really involved and that clearly there is a lot of good stuff going on here."

She said she was "quite aware" that there were parents with concerns, but added, "My view is, it's a small number of parents that have concerns and those that have been raised have been addressed.

"We had a forum last April and now we are waiting for the Math Commission set up by the Schools Chancellor to complete its investigations into all kinds of issues regarding math.

"We think it is prudent to wait until they come out with their report before we have another forum."

Reproduced with permission from Town and Village.

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