TERC Fuzzy Math and "Balanced Literacy" Whole Language

To: Edward Achorn
Providence Journal

From: Michael McKeown
Mathematically Correct

December 11, 2001

Dear Mr. Achorn,

My wife and I, like you, arrived in Rhode Island within the last two years. Like you, we are astonished by the way the state is run. Like you, we have serious concerns about the educational system.

With this in mind, you overestimating Diana Lam's positive qualities and are certainly underestimating the instructional mistakes she is perpetrating.

Ms. Lam is stressing a number of important issues, notably an emphasis on literacy, student performance and teacher training. These are certainly appealing ideas and hard to criticize. On the other hand, talk is cheap, implementation is difficult, and what ultimately matters is what hits the classroom.

Thus, to judge whether Ms. Lam's program is of value, we need to ask what practices she is really using her power to place in classrooms. She can talk a great game, but if the classroom practices she stresses are bad, she deserves all the criticism she gets.

Based on what I can learn of Providence schools, Ms. Lam is making all the mistakes that ed school-trained administrators across the country are making, notably implementation of Whole Language and fuzzy math.

I have been unable to determine exactly what Providence's "Balanced Literacy" program contains, but in various other places, such terms are used by those who implement Whole Language practices while trying to claim a research-based program involving systematic, explicit phonics instruction. I had a long talk with the Journal's Gina Macris yesterday on this issue. Her comments reinforce my belief that this is not a research-based best practice program that Ms. Lam is so adamant about, it is a relatively poor program of particular risk to at risk students. (For more info on Whole Language masquerading as Balanced Literacy, see http://www.edexcellence.net/library/wholelang/moats.html)

In math, I have been informed that Providence, under Ms. Lam, has adopted Investigations in Number, Data and Space, published by Dale Seymour and sometimes known by the acronym TERC, for the consortium that developed it. My wife and I, and a number of others, have examined this program in some detail. I can say, without a doubt, that this is the worst math program I have seen. It is based entirely on a philosophy that students should discover mathematical methods for themselves, that efficient, standard methods should not be taught and may indeed by dangerous to children, that computational fluency is not critical, that idiosyncratic, not general, methods are more important than general methods and so on. Programs such as this are particularly deleterious to at risk students as they already lack skills and knowledge that advantaged kids get at home. (Reviews of Investigations and other programs are available at http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com/books.htm . If you are interested in a more extensive review of Investigations, one will soon be available).

In other words, Diana Lam has pulled a bait and switch on the Providence, community, notably on the Business Round Table and the Public Education Fund. She comes across as an educational hard ass, which appeals to many people, but she uses this power to implement the worst of the current educational nonsense.

In making these criticisms, I am not merely a crazy parent. My wife and I are among the founders or Mathematically Correct, a nationwide organization of parents and others concerned about mathematics education. I was a member of the committee which wrote the California Mathematics Program Advisory. I worked on the early stages of the California Science Standards. I was part of the committee that wrote the San Diego Math Standards. My wife and I, along with others, have reviewed Algebra, Pre-Algebra and elementary math textbooks. The US Department of Education flew me from San Diego to Washington, DC to meet with the Education Secretary Riley to discuss math issues. I have twice been an invited speaker at the annual meeting of the Education Leaders Council.

I am interested in talking or e-mailing further about these issues.


Michael McKeown

Info on Mathematically Correct

Mathematically Correct is a nationwide organization dedicated to improving mathematics education. Our membership spans the political spectrum. Of the four founding families, three are Democrats, the fourth is more conservative. None are notably religious. A significant fraction of our membership is composed of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and others who have used and continue to use mathematics. Most of our members became active in mathematics education when their children were placed in ill designed, watered down classes. No matter how often we have been told by teachers and administrators that these new programs will make our children "creative problem solvers for the modern world," we know that these programs will leave our children unprepared to do the kinds of work we do, much of which is at the forefront of science and engineering.

Our major means of communicating with the public is through our 2 + 2 web site and via e-mail. Our costs are small so we ask no membership fees, nor do we accept funding from textbook publishers.

We are not mere nay sayers. Our members and associates have served on the California Academic Standards Commission, have contributed to the writing of the California Mathematics, Language Arts and Science Standards, have served on the committee that drafted the California Mathematics Framework, and the California Mathematics Program Advisory, as well as helping to draft local mathematics standards in various communities. Members have been involved in the recent mathematics and reading textbook approval process in California as well as serving on the California Curriculum Commission.

Various members and friends of Mathematically Correct have testified, by request, before US House of Representatives' committees as well as before committees of both houses of the California legislature. We have been invited to Washington to discuss mathematics education with Secretary Riley. We advise, by request, members of multiple state and local boards of education across the country. Our web site is a particularly valuable repository of information about various mathematics programs and educational standards. It serves the important function of informing parents that they are not alone in their concerns about the watered down math their children are being given.

Two representatives of Mathematically Correct were declared "Unsung Heroes" by the Center for Education Reform in 1998.

We recognize that the education battle must be fought on many levels, nationwide, in each state and in each district. As such, our success depends on individual initiative in each district and state, with aid and information from the 2 + 2 website and from the nationwide network of Mathematically Correct members and friends.

Our major focus is improving mathematics education, not merely by returning to the past, but also by identifying newer programs that are truly supported by evidence of efficacy over large student populations. The best of the research we have seen in this regard, either in cognitive psychology or in large scale educational studies, supports the idea that children learn best in structured classes in which each lesson has a clearly defined educational goal and where classroom practice is, for the most part, based on teacher directed, whole class instruction.

We have been involved in similar work in other core academic subjects, notably reading and science. In reading we have supported standards, educational frameworks, and academic programs that stress, at the K-2 level, phonemic awareness, systematic and explicit phonics instruction, and the use of decodable texts. We have opposed methods that go under the broad title of "Whole Language" such as embedded phonics instruction, literature-based basic reading instruction, guessing from pictures, overemphasis on sight words and so on. In science we have supported high, clear standards at all grades in which students are clearly required to know and understand sufficient concepts and facts to allow them to be truly creative problem solvers. We have generally opposed science programs in which the process of the classroom, as opposed to the content of student learning, has been most important.

Our full effort is directed at core academic subjects. There are other subjects on which our members have a wide range of views and on which we take no position.

The topics on which we take no position include

Bilingual Education
Tax Credits
Merit Pay
Affirmative Action
Charter Schools
Mechanisms of School Funding

To: Edward Achorn
Providence Journal

December 15, 2001

Dear Mr. Achorn,

Last week I wrote to you about the importance of examining what programs an educational administrator such as Diana Lam is pushing, as well as the style of her administration. Good style, extra teacher development, talk of emphasis on literacy and so on are useless without effective programs at the classroom level.

In this letter I mentioned that Providence schools are using Investigations in Number, Data and Space (also known as TERC) as their elementary math program. I asserted then, and repeat, " This is the worst math program I have seen."

An important new review of TERC has appeared since I sent you that message: TERC Hands-On Math: The Truth is in The Details - An Analysis of Investigations in Number, Data, and Space http://wgquirk.com/TERC.html .

Without regard for whether Providence teachers are behaving as spoiled children, or Lam's top level reforms are of the appropriate type, this math program introduced under her regime is a sign that her administration, at the classroom level, has serious flaws.

Michael McKeown
Mathematically Correct

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