New Math Standards and Teaching Methods

(Letter to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle by Ralph A. Raimi, published as a guest column on December 2, 2002. The letter is followed by an email exchange between Ralph Raimi and John Bliss, a past teacher in the Rochester school system.)

Department of Mathematics
Rochester, New York 14627
Tel (585) 275-4429 or 244-9368
FAX (585) 273-4655 (at U of R)
Ralph A. Raimi
Professor Emeritus

To the Editor
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
55 Exchange Blvd.
Rochester, NY 14614

A recent feature article, "New math standards alter teaching methods", combined two subjects having little to do with each other. The "teaching methods" being described there concern recently developed math curricula which are now being used in a number of Rochester area schools, while the "new math standards" concern the New York Regents' examinations, in particular the Regents' "Math A" examination, which demands a certain level of proficiency for a high school diploma.

The idea of having statewide examinations by which schools can measure their relative success is a good one, and is indeed mandated by recent federal legislation for those states wanting certain forms of federal aid for their schools (Iowa is the only holdout), but the three programs whose praise makes up the bulk of the D&C article are another story entirely. These programs, whose web site addresses are given in the article for those who want more information, are the TERC "Investigations" for primary schools, the CMP ("Connected Math Program") for middle schools, and CORE-PLUS for the high schools. The D&C article by John Kohlstrand, which got most of its information from proponents of these programs, mainly praised the "hands-on" approach common to all of them, by which students "discover" mathematics rather than get taught mathematics.

All three programs are quite terrible, however, and will not prepare a student for college or for life. They are not merely an alternate way of teaching, but they lack content. Several years of experience with them have caused the entire state of California to drop their use, and they have recently been found wanting in a multitude of school districts all over the country, where parents' groups are pleading with the local school authorities to get rid of them, sometimes with success. At the present time, Manhattan's District 2 is the focus of a revolt by a parents' group called NYCHOLD, with the assistance of mathematics professors from all the CUNY colleges as well as a large group from NYU.

A letter to the editor such as this one has not space for a full discussion of this matter, but the interested reader should consult some adverse criticism of these programs (in addition to the three favorable websites -- operated by the publishers of the programs -- that were mentioned by the D&C).

Among others, let me cite as the voice of the California group that has successfully turned that state away from these programs, and as a sample web site of a mathematician who has made a detailed analysis of the TERC program in particular. The New York City group is found at All three of these sites have useful links to other information on these programs, as well as to other programs (good ones as well as bad ones). Also, they give helpful practical advice to parents of children are currently undergoing TERC, CMP, or CORE-PLUS.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph A. Raimi

Addendum: We append, with permission from the authors, a brief email exchange following publication of the above letter. John Bliss was a teacher in the Rochester school system.

Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2002 10:08:19 EST
Subject: Praise from a teacher

I read the article you had in the paper. I applaud both your wisdom and courage.

I worked for ten years in the RCSD and two years at an expensive private school. Both used the math curriculum you spoke of.

I tried in vain to get both places to reconsider using the programs. I was told that "higher order thinking skills" were more important than "basic skills" and that the Investigations a Connected math programs would better prepare students for the higher standards and real life situations that were coming.

What I saw was a program that was difficult for teachers to prepare but more importantly, a program that killed student learning. Only the most capable students got much out of the curriculum and it was so scripted that even they got bored. When I attempted to cater it to student needs I was told that altering it would lead to failure-I had experience this same logic when I was told to force feed other prepackaged programs to kids.

It seemed haphazard but because it was being legitimized by creating critical thinkers (by many of the anti testing folks) it was accepted. What I found was that I had kids in sixth grade who were great at having lengthy conversations about patterns but could not figure out how much change they should get.

I could tell you much more but I will save it. I am not currently teaching because so much of it today is about doing what is politically correct and not what is best for kids. It has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative but it is clear that huge mistakes are being made and thousands of kids are paying for it.

Good for you.

John Bliss 482-0627

Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2002 13:00:54 -0500 (EST)
From: Ralph A. Raimi <>
Subject: Re: Praise from a teacher

Thank you for your letter. I haven't yet seen the piece as it appeared today in the D&C but presume it was what I had written, since I had told the editor -- with some emphasis -- not to improve it.

I am associated with a group (NYCHOLD, as referred to in my article) which is trying to get the New York schools to abandon these terrible texts and programs, and not only in New York for that matter. We are met with responses much like what you were told, that the merits of these programs are ineffable and will appear in time, etc. Also, that we really do not understand such things.

In fact, the schools (or some of their leaders) are being paid to use them, via NSF grants for "professional development" which include funds for travel to conferences and a good bit of other benefit, and these programs will not finally be stopped until the NSF grants run out. This will take years, but we are working on it anyhow. Among other things we would like some testimonials from the trenches. (We are mainly either mathematicians or parents, and easily attacked as ignorant of the real world of teaching.)

I would like your permission to add your letter to our stock of evidence for our purpose, with or without identifying you. Please let me know if I may use it, and if so, how to credit it ("a teacher" -- which of course would be unnecessary since you speak of your own experience within the letter, or your name).

Sincerely yours,

Ralph A. Raimi Tel. 585 275 4429, or (home) 585 244 9368
Dept. of Mathematics Fax (Math Dept) 585 273 4655
University of Rochester Homepage
Rochester, NY 14627 (contains links to papers, some not technical)

Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2002 19:58:57 EST
Subject: Re: Praise from a teacher

It is funny how many of the same people who would fight against a reading program like Success for All and other school-wide, districtwide language arts program would so openly embrace the math/science ones.

I was a 1994 Center for Educational Development Teacher of the Year. Not the highest honor but many people thought I was a good teacher. Unfortunately good teachers that fight for kids end up banging heads with adults. I fought TERC because they assumed to have all the answers and any program that pretends to be that personal causes me to question its honesty.

Any program that is as prescriptive as Investigations/Connections was, in my mind is dangerous. It puts completion before motivation. These programs neglect what kids want. Kids want to be successful. I am not talking about being soft. What I am saying is that kids need to understand numbers before they go into space.

I saw many kids who did not "get it" but the beat went on. The program is so regimented that many of the words we were supposed to use were actually printed in the manual.

I worked with both investigations and connections and both stressed "higher order thinking skills" but what they really did was divide kids. I saw some kids (a few) that had the foundation needed to do well with the programs (Of course these were kids who also would thrive in all areas because they had parents that participated) but I also saw kids who were depressed in math. These were kids who would/could drift during the lesson thinking about all kinds of things and would get away with this restlessness because they had the workbook/prescription to hold them up.

Everything was preprinted and packaged neatly so the teacher and students could stay together on paper but the mind was lost. Accountability was determined by spaces filled in a workbook. There was the best answer (as seen in the manual) but there were also many others that were acceptable. In the end they were all good enough as long as the lines were filled. It was classic one-size fits-all but it may be even worse.

In strict reading programs the acceptable responses are clear. Kids who answer wrong must practice, practice, practice. With the TERC math programs all answers were acceptable. They were all about concepts and any response a child gave, no matter how twisted, was alright. Which is more dangerous, failing or never knowing you failed?

You may use this letter in any way you want. Call me if you need more information. I am not teaching in the classroom now.

John Bliss

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