Parents' New Battle in City Math War

Town and Village
June 7, 2001

Mathematicians and scientists at New York University, City University and Harvard were last night expected to speak out against the controversial new math programs taught in New York City schools, at a parent hosted math forum.

NYC parents intend to voice questions and concerns about their children's new math programs, asking for explanations and support from the university experts.

Changes in how and what math is taught in NYC schools are part of a national reform effort which began over a decade ago.

Some NYU mathematicians agree with math educators that improvements in how math is taught in US schools is critical, but warn the new programs lack important mathematical content and will fail to adequately prepare students for a broad range of college-level courses and majors.

According to the parents battling the system, the NYU professors' concerns are shared by the vast majority of their colleagues across the country who have become aware of the new school math programs.

Last year, over 200 of the nation's top mathematicians and scientists - including seven Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners - signed an open letter of protest urging US Secretary of education Richard W Riley to withdraw his earlier endorsement of ten of the experimental math programs.

The current NYC controversy is the latest struggle in the national math wars, raging over the past 10 years.

The programs were first tried in California in the early nineties, and subsequently dropped by the state several years later, after test scores plummeted and remedial math courses for incoming freshmen in the state university system sharply rose.

In NYC, organized parent and teacher opposition to the new math programs began in District Two, one of the city's best, and now extends to District 3, District 10 and District 15.

Bronx high school teachers have organized to express opposition to next year's requirement they use only the Interactive Mathematics Project (IMP) an experimental high school program the teachers worry lacks important mathematical content necessary to prepare students for the Regents A exam and college level course work.

The new programs, many without student texts, are based on a "constructivist" teaching philosophy, which discourages teachers from teaching mathematical rules and procedures.

Instead, teachers guide students, through group activities such as skip counting, regrouping into 'friendly numbers,' estimation exercises, games and class discussion. Knowing math facts, such as the multiplication tables holds less importance.

In the later elementary grades and in middle school, as students approach algebra, 'personal' strategies remain the preferred method. Students are required to keep journals with written narratives of steps to solutions and essays on their feelings about math.

Karen Feuer, President of District School Board Two, declined to comment until after the parents' meeting.

Reproduced with permission from Town and Village.

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