Reversing the Decline in Mastery of Basic Mathematics

Email letter from Richard H. Escobales, Jr., to NYC Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein

Honorable Joel I. Klein
Office of the Chancellor
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007

Dear Chancellor Klein:

I write to you as a native of New York City (Staten Island), as a member of the mathematics faculty at Canisius College in Buffalo for almost 30 years (September 1973), as a parent of three children, and as one who has been concerned about school mathematics (K-12) since roughly 1977.

In these years I have witnessed a precipitous decline in the level of mastery expected in the traditional basics of school mathematics K-12. At first it occurred in high school mathematics. On the state level, the venerable Math 9, 10 and 11 was replaced with the far weaker Courses I, II, and III. Happily, enough protest from around the state forced the now defunct state Bureau of Mathematics Education to put back into the curriculum some of the algebra that had been removed. But overall that new program was far weaker than the one it replaced. Now Courses I, II and III have been replaced by the Learning Standards for Mathematics, Science and Technology which I have criticized quite openly.

The 1989 NCTM Standards took school mathematics to a new low. In that document even the wisdom of teaching long division to school children was called into question. The preponderance of people involved in those disastrous 1989 NCTM Standards were not mathematicians but people in mathematics education. I finally did react to these so called standards in a letter published in the May 1997 Notices of the American Mathematical Society which I enclose. Apparently, the letter had its effect because the 2000 version of NCTM Standards specifically includes a long division problem.

The gist of my plea today is that unless our young people internalize the basic procedures and processes of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, our young people will be unable to compete with their counterparts in other countries for occupations where the mastery of mathematics is really necessary. We do not want mathematics training in New York City to promote calculator assisted mathematical incompetence.

Those college students with weak mathematical backgrounds are essentially prevented from pursuing majors which require serious mathematics. It is a tragedy for these students; and I think this is a preventable tragedy.

Happily there are people in New York City who are actively trying to call your attention to the very serious issues involved in preparing the next generation of New Yorkers in mathematics. I am thinking of the group which calls itself "New York City HOLD [ Honest Open Logical Debate on Mathematics Education Reform]." Consisting of parents, K-12 teachers, and, college and university mathematicians, the group has some truly distinguished national advisors.

I urge you to listen to them and to take their advice.


Richard H. Escobales,Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of Mathematics

copies: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Eva Moskowitz, Education Committee Chair, Elizabeth Carson, New York City HOLD.

2 enclosures

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