[Press release from May 30, 2001. Click here for the New York City HOLD Web site.]

New Front in New York City Math Wars

NYC HOLD Honest Open Logical Debate on Math Reform

A Consortium of Concerned Parents, Educators, Mathematicians and Scientists

May 30, 2001

Contact: Elizabeth Carson Phone: 212.529.1301 Cell: 917.208.7153: E-Mail:carchu@msn.com
Denise Haffenden Phone: 212.260.6453 E-Mail: mikeden@juno.com

NEW YORK, NY - Mathematicians and scientists from New York University, City University, and Harvard will speak out against the controversial new math programs taught in New York City Schools, at a NYC HOLD parent-hosted math forum on Wednesday, June 6th, Tishman Auditorium in Vanderbilt Hall, NYU School of Law, 40 Washington Square South, at 7pm. The forum will begin with a brief panel presentation, followed by panel-member response to parent questions and comments from the floor.

For the first time, NYC parents will meet to voice questions and concerns about their children's new math programs, asking for explanations and support from the university experts. Changes in how and what math is taught in NYC schools are part of a national reform effort which began over a decade ago. NYU mathematicians agree with math educators that improvements in how math is taught in US schools are critical; but warn the new programs lack important mathematical content and will fail to adequately prepare students for broad range of college-level courses and majors.

NYC professors' concerns are shared by the vast majority of their colleagues across the country. Last year, over 200 of the nation's top mathematicians and scientists, including seven Nobel laureates and Fields Medal winners, signed an open letter of protest, published in the Washington Post, urging US Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to withdraw his earlier endorsement of ten of the experimental math programs.

The "new-new math," as its frequently called, echoes a previous, failed "new math" reform. The current NYC controversy is the latest struggle in the national "math wars," raging over the past ten years The programs were first tried in California in the early nineties, and dropped by the state several years later, after test scores plummeted and remedial math courses for incoming freshmen in the state university system sharply rose.

In NYC, organized parent and teacher opposition to the new math programs began in District 2, one of the city's best; and now extends to District 3, District 10 and District 15. Bronx high school teachers have organized to express opposition to next year's requirement they use only the Interactive Mathematics Project (IMP), an experimental high school math program. The teachers worry the program lacks important mathematical content necessary to prepare their students for the Regents A exam and college level coursework

The new programs, many without student texts, are based on a "constructivist" teaching philosophy, which discourages teachers from teaching mathematical rules and procedures. Instead, teachers guide students, through group activities, to their own "discovery" of personal solutions. Students are encouraged to seek help from each other, rather than from the teacher

Students use pictures, beads, blocks, and coins to compute; and are discouraged from using the standard operations, such as column addition and subtraction. To measure angles, bent straws, serve in place of protractors. Strips of paper, rather than rulers, are used to measure and to learn fractions. Memorization and practice are considered unnecessary; instead, students engage in activities such as skip counting, regrouping into friendly numbers, estimation exercises, games and class discussion. Knowing math facts, such as multiplication tables, holds less importance.

In the later elementary grades and in middle school, as students approach algebra, "personal" strategies remain the preferred method. Students are required to keep math journals with written narratives of steps to solutions and essays on their "feelings" about math.

Parents worry the new programs do not effectively develop accuracy and fluency in mathematical procedures, developed over many hundreds of years, such as column addition, multiplication of two digit numbers, long division, the division of fractions, and procedures for solving algebraic equations.

Many opponents of the new math programs assert they ultimately fail to teach either important mathematical concepts, or precision and fluency. After a recent tour of elite District 2 middle and high school math classes, NYU Professor Alan Siegel described the new programs as "a cartoon-version of math." He has studied the recent trend in US math education reform, comparing the new programs with those used in the far better performing countries of Singapore and Japan.

Private tutors and tutoring institutions in NYC have seen a marked rise in their business since the new math programs began. Julie Tay, Director of Wossing, a tutoring school in lower Manhattan, expressed particular concern for the large new immigrant Chinese community in District 2. She sees the district's new programs failing to develop basic skills; and, together with the heavy emphasis on writing and talking about math, and the absence of textbooks, she worries, particularly compromise the chances for success among new immigrant English language learners. Immigrant parents are left unable to assist their children at home, and are reluctant or unable to explain their concerns to the school.

District 2 is the recipient of a $3.5 million grant to study three of the experimental new math programs: Investigations in Number Data and Space (TERC), Connected Mathematics Project (CMP), and Mathematics: Modeling Our World (ARISE) -the programs are mandated in all District 2 schools. Teachers are prohibited from supplementing with traditional materials or approaches, such as textbooks or explicit instruction in rules and procedures.

Over the last several years, parents have repeatedly expressed their concern in letters and testimony to district and central board officials, only to have their concerns dismissed or ignored. At a recent District 2 school board meeting, one elementary teacher defended TERC, explaining more time was necessary to teach the "big ideas," leaving less time to teach basic skills. Another teacher stated teaching long division (absent from TERC and CMP) was too difficult and time consuming, and that today the skill was no longer necessary.

District 2 parent, and forum co-organizer, Denise Haffenden, likens the administrators who are implementing the experimental curriculum to "medical salesman" who come into the operating room to advise doctors. "Where are their math degrees?" she asks.

Parents' concerns with the experimental nature of the reform are shared by the NYU professors. NYU research physicist Professor Bas Braams stated, "A practicing scientist might think that mathematics education reform would probably be guided by a respected body of research into what works and what does not. Sadly, this is not the way things are done.... the research is carried out by the same people that implement the reform ... This leads to the pernicious kind of advocacy research, where the people that are evaluating the outcome of a reform activity have a great deal of personal prestige and also future funding at stake in the results of their evaluation. The resulting research is so tainted from the start as to make it completely ignorable."

Last spring, NYU mathematicians and scientists began meeting with a group of concerned District 2 parents in preparation for a Community School Board 2 sponsored math forum, where community concerns were to be discussed. Since then, the school board cancelled the plans indefinitely, and District 2 officials refuse to hold any district wide forums. Parent organizers hope the June event will educate and mobilize concerned parents.

NYC HOLD members hope for the eventual development of collaboration between NYC educators and university mathematicians and scientists in the selection and development of mathematics programs, standards and assessments for city schools. Mid-summer, the NYC HOLD Web site will be launched: www.nychold.org and www.nychold.com.

The forum panel will include: Professor Stanley Ocken, CCNY; Professor Emeritus Ralph Raimi, University of Rochester; Professor Wilfried Schmid, Harvard; and Professors Bas Braams, Sylvain Cappell, Fred Greenleaf, Jonathan Goodman, Charles Newman, Department of Mathematics, Courant Institute, NYU; and Professor Alan Siegel, Department of Computer Science, Courant Institute, NYU.

Return to the New York City HOLD main page.