California Math Wars Come to New York

NYC HOLD Press Release, April 18, 2000

The District Two Parents' Math Committee

Contact: Elizabeth Carson.
phone: 212.529.1302 Cell: 917.208.7153.

Friday, April 18, 2000

California Math Wars Come to New York

It may be the most important skill taught in the New York public schools, one that will determine whether children excel in the fields of science and technology, yet our district administrators have adopted one of the most controversial math curricula in the country - one that the nation's top mathematicians, including seven Nobel Laureates, the department heads at more than a dozen universities, including Caltech, Stanford, and Yale, math and physics professors from UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, along with two former Presidents of the Mathematical Association of America, all denounce.

The refusal to acknowledge the importance of teaching simple computation may doom 22,000 students in 44 schools in District Two alone to remedial levels. The majority may be condemned to enter high school without basic computational skills, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Students, for example, are not taught in these programs how to multiply two-digit numbers or divide fractions.

"These programs are among the worst in existence," said David Klein, a Cal State Northridge math professor who helped author the letter of protest to the Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley. "It would be a joke, except for the damaging effect it has on children."

The letter, dated November 1999, urging Secretary Riley to withdraw his endorsement of ten experimental math programs, was also signed by Nobel laureates in physics Steven Chu (1997), Sheldon Lee Glashow (1997), Leon M. Ledermen (1998) and Steven Weinberg (1979) and two winners of the Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics.

This week, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) released the first major revision of the 1989 standards, adding language emphasizing the importance of basic computational skills. The new standards instantly obsolete every one of the "exemplary" programs endorsed by the United States Department of Education last October. The Expert Panel recommendations were based, in part, on faithfulness to the old NCTM standards, which de-emphasized instruction of the standard algorithms of arithmetic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

It was the introduction of and Investigations, in Number, Data and space (TERC -Technical Education Research Center) and the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) the mandated curriculum for all elementary and middle students in District Two, in the Palo Alto school system that sparked the initial parent revolt which became the California Mathematics Wars.

A similar program known as Everyday Mathematics sparked a rebellion by parents in the Princeton Township School District. The use of TERC in one school system in Massachusetts prompted members of the Harvard Mathematics Department to issue a public protest.

The standard algorithms of arithmetic - the procedures for doing basic math - are not just ways to find an answer to a math problem. They have theoretical as well as practical significance. All algorithms prepare students for algebra since there are, because of the decimal system, the link between the arithmetic of ordinary numbers and algebraic equations. But over and above this, learning how to compute is one of the keys to forming young minds, showing them how to think logically and organize facts.

Mathematically Correct, a national organization that reviews school curricula, gave the TERC method in second and fifth grades its lowest rating -- an F.

Steven Leinwand, who was the co-chairman of the panel drawn up by The Office of Education Research and Improvements, designed to evaluate and recommend the country's math curricula, is a strong supporter of the math reforms adopted in some New York public schools. He does not hide his disdain for basic math skills. "It's time to recognize that, for many students, real mathematical power, on the one hand, and facility with multidigit, pencil-and-paper computational algorithms, on the other, are mutually exclusive," he wrote in an article entitled "It's Time to Abandon Computational Algorithms," published February 9, 1994, in Education Week on the Web. "In fact, it's time to acknowledge that continuing to teach these skills to our students is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive and downright dangerous."

Japanese and Chinese teachers forbid the use of calculators or computers in math class, until high school, knowing that students must learn to grasp concepts and operations to solve problems. But the use of calculators in elementary " reform math" classrooms is common; we have condemned our aspiring scientists and mathematicians to learn elementary skills in college.

In California, one of the first states to adopt the new math programs, 54% of the incoming students in the California State University system must take remedial mathematics - intermediate algebra or lower. The university draws from the top 30 percent of graduating California high-school classes.

The new math programs have only been in the New York schools for five or six years, so its effects in the upper levels are only now being felt.

The number of technical degrees awarded to US citizens is approximately 28,000 a year, although there are an estimated 100,000 new jobs in these areas available yearly. And so, since we do not train our own, we import educated talent from abroad. Last year, Congress was forced to provide 142,500 new visas for foreign nationals with high-tech skills for the three years from 1999 to 2001.

"In a world without math, the next generation of computers goes undeveloped, bridges and skyscrapers go unconstructed, the Internet is shut down and the opportunities for tomorrow are never realized." - President Clinton, December 9, 1999.

One would think that math is the last area we would allow to be turned over to school bureaucrats, whose almost evangelical promotion of the latest math reform seems to have gone far astray from the primary goal of educating our children.

ELIZABETH CARSON, has a 12-year-old son in District Two. She heads the District Two Parents' Math Committee.

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