Consider many teaching methods, says a former mathematician

The Tribeca Trib
March, 2001

To the Editor:

The quality of the public school is important to all of us. I am pleased to see the Tribeca Trib write articles about education. I am equally pleased when Anna Switzer, the principal of PS 234, parents of children, and others write letters to the editor about educational issues. I am looking forward to the possibility of a forum about the mathematics curriculum in District 2, which the District has been considering.

Although I am a former mathematician, and a parent of former PS 234 students, I certainly do not have all the answers about how mathematics should be taught. I would probably learn much at such a forum. The experts should be heard, but so should teachers, mathematicians, parents, and the general public, because experts differ and experts do not have all the answers.

It has long concerned me that many students hate math. It has long concerned me that many students do not understand how to approach and solve what we used to call "word problems," because these "word problems" are similar to mathematical problems that people face in everyday life. Rote learning of multiplication tables and of "long division" methods are very useful, as the "traditionalists" teach. However, we forget these methods unless we use them often and understand why they work. The "progressives" teach by emphasizing the thought processes and the strategies for finding answers. This does help students understand why, but we risk having many students miss the point entirely. Kids learn by doing.

As a practical matter, many students, including myself, learn by doing the rote methods and gradually learn later why they work. My viewpoint, however, is just one of many.

Although Anna Switzer "extols" the District 2 mathematics curriculum, and sincerely believes that it is "the best math curriculum at this time for elementary school children," I don't believe that she or Lucy West, the director of mathematics in District 2, have all the answers. I suspect that the District 2 teaching methods exemplify the school of thought of the Bank Street College of education, a private school. Again, they may be experts, but we know that experts differ, otherwise why would Harold Levy, the Schools Chancellor, have set up a commission to critique math instruction in the schools?

Ms Switzer cannot fairly claim that the high test scores that PS 234 students achieve on the New York State performance examination prove that her point of view is correct. As her predecessor, Blossom Gelernter, pointed out many times, the high test scores more reflect the wealth in the Tribeca area rather than the quality of teaching.

Ronald Drenger's recent article, which Ms Switzer calls a "bashing" of PS 234, clearly has a tone which is critical of the District 2 math curriculum. His prior articles did not have the same tone. However, I agree with him that a forum on the mathematics curriculum would be helpful. I hope that such a forum actually does have speakers with many different points of view, and is also open to points of view of the audience. I would be disappointed if the forum is merely the experts of District 2 lecturing us on their point of view.

Peter Gale

Reproduced with permission from the Tribeca Trib.

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