Put two and two together

Ideas and Opinions
New York Daily News
October 16, 2006

By Elizabeth Carson

Here's a math problem for you: Count the excuses people are trotting out for why schoolkids in New York City and State did poorly in the latest round of math scores. The results showed just 57% of the city's and 66% of the state's students performing at grade level - and a steady decline in achievement as kids got older.

It's about family income, said an article in The New York Times. "The share of students at grade level in affluent districts was more than twice as big as in impoverished urban districts."

It's about unfair funding levels, said state education Secretary Richard Mills.

It's about class size, said activist Leonie Haimson.

Wrong again, claimed other observers. The real culprit was a new test.

If, like me, you're running out of fingers - and patience - there's a reason. Nobody spinning the test scores is zeroing in on the single biggest reason math achievement in New York City and state lags and will continue to lag: Our schools use a far-too-fuzzy curriculum that fails to give kids rigorous instruction in the basics.

In New York City, the program required in the vast majority of schools is called Everyday Mathematics. Chancellor Joel Klein swears by it. If you ask administrators to explain it, they'll use just enough jargon to make it sound decent.

But the truth is, Everyday Math systematically downplays addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, which everyone knows are the foundations for all higher math. Instead of learning those basic four operations like the backs of their hands, students are asked to choose from an array of alternative methods, such as an ancient Egyptian method for multiplication. Long division is especially frowned upon.

There are no textbooks; that would just be too traditional. Instead, the idea is that kids ought to sit in groups, while a "facilitator" - that's the teacher - helps. And, oh, one more thing: Calculators are introduced in kindergarten.

Not every single piece of the program is hogwash. But taken in total, the curriculum is soft enough to let down thousands upon thousands of our children. That's why it was rejected - twice - in the careful curriculum analysis process they use in California.

As Matthew Clavel, a former teacher, has written about his fourth-grade class in the South Bronx, "The curriculum's failure was undeniable: Not one of my students knew his or her times tables, and few had mastered even the most basic operations; knowledge of multiplication and division was abysmal."

But don't take my word - or Clavel's word - for it. A 2004 study by the National Research Council said that programs including Everyday Math, known as "reform" or "constructivist" math, lack evidence of effectiveness. And the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics last month released new guidelines emphasizing core math skills - a tacit admission that what so many American schools have been teaching for so long is wrong.

We have two choices. We can stick to this curriculum and keep making excuses every time we get bad results. Or we can embrace proven methods, like those used in Singapore, Japan and many California schools, which have followed those examples and are seeing big gains.

Carson is co-founder and executive director of NYC HOLD, an advocacy organization.

See also Put two and two together, NYDN reader reactions, Letters to the Editor, the New York Daily News, October 20-27, 2006; and see unpublished reader reactions for some letters that did not make it into NYDN.

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