March 29, 2000
Parents are starting to realize that "fuzzy" math courses
(variously called "whole math," "new math" or "new new math") are
producing kids who can't do arithmetic, much less algebra. The U.S.
Department of Education responded last October by officially endorsing
ten new math courses for grades K-12, calling them "exemplary" or
"promising" and urging local school districts to "seriously consider"
adopting one of them.
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The recommended programs were approved by an "expert" panel
commissioned by the Department of Education. But many parents believe
that the "experts" are subtracting rather than adding to the skills of
Scholars are criticizing the new courses, too. They say that most
of the panel's "field reviewers" who made the initial recommendations
were teachers, not math experts, and that the panel making the final
decisions did not include "active research mathematicians."
Within six weeks of the Department of Education's announcement,
more than 200 mathematicians and scholars banded together to denounce
the government-anointed curricula because they fail to teach basic
skills. The group wrote a joint letter to Education Secretary Richard
Riley criticizing the "exemplary" programs and asking the Department to
reconsider its choices.
The group then published the letter as a full-page ad in the
November 18th Washington Post. Despite the prestige of the letter's
signers, including four Nobel Laureates and two winners of the Fields
Medal (the highest mathematics honor), Riley refused to back away from
the Department's endorsements.
Riley defended his Department's recommendations because they
conform to the so-called "standards" adopted in 1989 by the National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). But the nationally created
math "standards" are just as off the mark as the nationally created
history standards that caused such an uproar when they were released in
The history standards were denounced in the U.S. Senate by a vote
of 99 to 1, but that didn't faze the educators determined to
indoctrinate students with "politically correct" history. After a few
cosmetic changes, revisionist history masquerading under the label
"standards" has infected nearly all new social studies textbooks.
The schools appear just as determined to force fuzzy math on
children despite its obvious failures and the opposition of scholars
and parents. In Illinois, parents have clashed with schools over one
of these "exemplary" courses called "Everyday Math," or "Chicago Math"
because it was produced by the University of Chicago Mathematics
Project, complaining that the curriculum neglects basic computation.
Last August, parents in Plano, Texas filed a lawsuit against their
school district over another of these Department-approved courses,
"Connected Math," accusing the district of failing to give their
children basic math instruction. In December, parents in Montgomery
County, Maryland kicked up vigorous opposition to Connected Math even
though the district was being enticed into using it by the prospect of
a $6 million federal grant.
Another of these Department-approved courses, "Mathland," directs
the children to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add,
subtract, multiply and divide. It's too bad they don't know that
adults wiser than those now in school have already discovered how to
add, subtract, multiply and divide.
Critics charge that these fuzzy math programs, which are touted as
complying with "standards," do not teach traditional or standard
arithmetic at all and actually give the word "standards" a bad name.
They are based on such theories as that "process skills" are more
important than computational skills and that correct solutions are not
important so long as the student feels good about what he is doing.
The arguments for fuzzy math are that it is supposed to spare
children the rigors of teacher-imposed rules and teach them that all
they need is a calculator. Fuzzy math omits drill in basic math facts,
fails to systematically build from one math concept to another, and
encourages children to work in groups to "discover" math and construct
their own math language.
According to mathematician Joel Hass of the University of
California-Davis, one of the signers of the letter to Riley, "Saying
that we don't need to teach children how to compute now that we have
calculators is like saying we don't need to teach them how to draw now
that we have cameras or we don't need to teach them how to play music
now that we have CD players." Mathematician William G. Quirk, whose
career includes teaching 26 different math and computer science courses
at three universities, says, "Nowhere in the NCTM's 258 pages of
standards do they suggest that kids should remember any specific math
Critics complain that failing to teach children the division of
fractions precludes their moving on to algebra. David Klein of
California State University, another signer of the letter to Riley,
said, "In shutting the door to algebra, Connected Math also closes
doors to careers in engineering and science."
In 1989 23 percent of freshmen entering California colleges needed
remedial help in math. This figure has now risen to 55 percent. If
parents want their children to learn arithmetic, they will have to
teach them at home.