New York City Mathematics Department Chairs Warn Chancellor Klein Against Continued Use of Fuzzy Math Programs

NYC HOLD Honest Open Logical Debate on Mathematics Education Reform

New York City HOLD

January 4, 2003

CONTACT: Charles Newman, Acting Director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, NYU
Robert Feinerman, Chair, Mathematics Department, Lehman College and
Chair, CUNY Mathematics Department Chairs

New York, NY - In a letter signed by mathematics department chairs at City University of New York senior colleges, New York University and Polytechnic University of New York, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is strongly advised to discontinue use of "defective curricula" in NYC schools. "We wish to underscore our concern that a decision by the Working Group on Numeracy to continue support for defective curricula will profoundly damage the career opportunities of New York City children, the viability of mathematics and science programs at many CUNY colleges, and the economic infrastructure of New York City, which is increasingly technology-based and so, dependent upon the supply of mathematically competent students entering the workforce." Letter co-signers include Charles Newman, Acting Director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU and Robert Feinerman, Chair of the Mathematics Department at Lehman College and Chair of the CUNY Mathematics Department Chairs.

The letter, dated December 17, 2002, comes on the eve of release of a blueprint for mathematics instruction developed by the Numeracy Working Group, one of nine subcommittees under Chancellor Klein's Children First Initiative, charged with developing plans for systemic changes in NYC schools.

The "defective" math programs, also described in the letter as "content-poor," are best known as "fuzzy" or "constructivist" math and have come under steady fire over the past several years in NYC by parents and members of the mathematics community. Community resistance led to the establishment of the grass-roots organization, NYC HOLD Honest Open Logical Debate on Mathematics Education Reform, formed to coordinate NYC parent, teacher and mathematicians' efforts to persuade education officials to scrap the experimental programs, and to help support quality replacements. The NYC HOLD Web site address is

Local revolts over fuzzy math and a national debate that led to Congressional hearings, have raged over the past decade. NYC mathematics experts' opposition to the experimental programs, echoes the sentiments expressed in an open letter to former US Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, published in the Washington Post in 1999. The letter was co-signed by over 200 distinguished mathematicians and scientists, among them seven Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners and the Department heads at Harvard, Caltech, Stanford and Yale.

The Chairs' letter to Chancellor Klein points to the source of fuzzy math: a controversial standards document issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989; and quotes the draft report of the Math Commission convened in 2001 by former NYC Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, which found "the NCTM standards do not contain the rigor, algorithmic approach, formal methods, and logical reasoning which are required [of] students who will go on to become scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, physicians, and educators of mathematics."

The Chairs refer to the philosophical underpinnings of the NCTM Standards-based curricula as "dangerous perceptions," leading to the absence of training in basic algebraic skills.

The controversial programs are based in a teaching method often called "constructivist," that gives far less attention to basic skills development, abjures repetition and practice, and discourages explicit instruction (teacher directed); and instead favors classroom small group explorations, with teachers asked to guide exercises that encourage children to learn on their own and from each other, personal ways to solutions. The use of standard computational methods are not taught and their use, when learned by students outside the classroom, is often discouraged. Writing assignments are frequent, students may be asked to write on their feelings about math or a favorite number. Calculator use is encouraged, beginning in kindergarten. The program content is generally recognized to be several grades below college preparatory.

One hand-out to NYC parents to explain the philosophy behind the new math programs, includes the statement: "The three principles we advocate are - following children's lead, not teaching algorithms, and not saying that an answer is correct or incorrect - the opposite of the traditional approach to teaching." (Constance Kamii, "52 x 8: The Importance of Children's Inititiative," The Constructivist, Fall, 1997)

The approach was tried and failed in a large scale experiment in California schools in the early nineties.

The Chairs' letter refers to the mathematics education research cited in support of the NCTM Standards-based math as "deceptive," and mentions improper control groups, poor testing instruments and outside tutoring left undocumented. The achievement levels of many poor and minority schools in Manhattan District 2 are described as "disastrous."

Parent complaints continue to be most fierce in Manhattan District 2, a premiere NYC school district and one of the first to pilot three of the controversial math programs, Investigations in Number, Data and Space (TERC), Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) and Mathematics: Modeling Our World (ARISE). The "parent revolt" was first reported in a front page expose in the New York Times on April 27, 2000. ("The New, Flexible Math Meets Parent Rebellion," Anemona Hartocollis) In a NY Post report the following year, Stuyvesant AP Danny Jaye, denounced the experimental math, stating that students who've taken "constructivist" math in middle schools are "scoring lower on our math placement exams because they don't have the requisite skills." Referring to the fuzzy high school program, ARISE, he stated "I don't think it's appropriate for any high school." ("Schools New Math = Trouble For City Kids," Carl Campanile, April 17, 2001)

The Chairs also express concern for the make-up of the Numeracy Working Group, which includes no mathematics experts. One Numeracy Working Group member is former District 2 Director of Mathematics, Lucy West, who headed the implementation of the district's controversial math programs, until this year, and who holds no degree in mathematics.

The Chairs underscore the importance of mathematical expertise in city mathematics reform deliberations and specifically, call for the active collaboration between CUNY mathematics departments and the Department of Education.

Sixty percent of the CUNY entering class are NYC public school graduates. CUNY produces about forty parent of the city teaching force.

Special attention is brought to the dire need for improvements in the mathematical knowledge of NYC's K-6 teachers.

Anticipated public release of the recommendations of the nine Working Groups, in a "blueprint for reform," Phase I of the Children First Initiative, is early January, 2003.

For more information on NYC HOLD mathematicians' views and analysis, and references related to the Children First Initiative, see the review authored by Bas Braams, NYU research physicist and NYC HOLD Web site co-editor, at:

Letter from Mathematics Department Chairs.

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