Ten Myths (Truly) About Learning Math

Letter to the Editor
The Washington Post
May 31, 2005

Re: 10 Myths (Maybe) About Learning Math, by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, May 31, 2005. Original document: Ten Myths About Learning Math, by Karen Budd, Elizabeth Carson, Barry Garelick, David Klein, R. James Milgram, Ralph A. Raimi, Martha Schwartz, Sandra Stotsky, Vern Williams, and W. Stephen Wilson, May 4, 2005.

Dear Editor,

The op-ed by Jay Mathews ("10 Myths (Maybe) About Learning Math," Washington Post, May 31) left unclear the identities of all those on both sides of the math wars and the purpose for the "myths" document. On one side are large numbers of parents, mathematicians, and teachers. On the other are the mythmakers: schools of education, NCTM, and various public and private mathematics education "reform" organizations. These mythmakers all have strong financial interests in preserving what is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Despite the money poured into math "reform", there is little improvement in US mathematics achievement to show for their efforts.

The Myths document is intended to challenge all these groups, not just NCTM, with truthful statements refuting the most popular myths. It was also designed to call educational policy makers' attention to the reality of mathematics education "reform" sweeping our country. In particular, it was meant to point out the appalling content deficiencies of the "reform" mathematics textbooks U.S. students are using.

The responses by the unnamed NCTM official to the Myths document misrepresent the facts. We provide evidence here to refute three of his or her misleading statements. We are prepared to refute all ten.

(1) NCTM Claim: "NCTM believes strongly that all students must become proficient with computation (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing), using efficient and accurate methods."

Not So: NCTM's most recent standards document does not state that students are to learn long division and also recommends they not learn to "invert and multiply" -- the algorithm used for dividing fractions -- claiming it is too hard to remember.

(2) NCTM Claim: "NCTM does not endorse or make recommendations for any programs, curricula, textbooks, or instructional materials."

Not So: In a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, dated November 30, 1999, NCTM Executive Director John Thorpe explicitly offers unconditional support for the quality of ten controversial "reform" math programs, all deemed defective by many mathematicians.

(3) NCTM Claim: "There is evidence that some of the more recently developed curricula are effective in some settings."

None of the research that NCTM can cite controls for widely reported instances of classroom teachers' clandestine use of non-reform materials and approaches, or parents' outside supplementation and tutoring.

The evidence of effectiveness to which NCTM refers, shows at best very small increases in scores for some of these programs, the increases are not educationally significant. It would take approximately 30 - 50 years at the rate of improvement in scores, for students to reach the achievement level of their peers in the highest achieving countries.

We have evidence to show that the adoption of good standards and commonsense instructional programs can show marked improvements in student achievement within a year or two. Please contact us via Elizabeth Carson, at the NYC HOLD Web site email address: nycmathforum@yahoo.com.

Return to the NYC HOLD main page or to the News page or to the Letters and Testimony page.