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Back to March Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 170 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS MARCH 2000

Parents Win 'Math War'
Maryland school district loses grant to expand controversial programs
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MD - In December, the Montgomery County School District lost its bid for a $6 million grant from the federal government to expand "fuzzy" math programs that were vigorously opposed by parents and some educators. The controversy pitted parents against school officials, many of whom favored the curricula.

School Superintendent Jerry Weast announced the loss of the grant during a press conference on the district's budget, and the embattled programs are expected to disappear next fall. Weast has also announced that the school district will pilot the use of math textbooks from Singapore during the 2000-2001 school year, which reportedly emphasize "rigorous content" and "traditional math instruction."

The federal grant would have expanded three pilot programs backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), including the controversial "Connected Math Project" (CMP). John Hoven, co-president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County and a critic of the NSF programs, told the Journal newspaper: "Connected Mathematics is not the kind of program that fits with the kind of superintendent [Weast] is. He likes programs that work and are developed in consensus with the community."

CMP and other "fuzzy" math programs have come under fire from parents across the country. Last August, parents in Plano, Texas filed a lawsuit against their school district over Connected Math, accusing the district of failing to provide their children with basic math instruction. In Illinois, parents have clashed with schools over "Chicago Math," produced by the University of Chicago Mathematics Project (UCMP), complaining that the curriculum neglects basic computation. (See Education Reporter, October 1999.)


Education Department Endorsements 
On Oct. 6, 1999, the U.S. Department of Education (E.D.) officially endorsed CMP and Chicago Math as "exemplary" along with eight similar K-12 math programs. (See list) The department urged local school districts to "seriously consider" adopting one of these programs if they had not already done so.

The recommended programs were approved by an "expert" panel commissioned by the E.D. to pinpoint "exemplary" and "promising" school curricula. Critics say, however, that most of the panel's "field reviewers" - those making the initial program recommendations - were teachers, not math experts, and that the panel making the final decisions did not include "active research mathematicians."

Nonetheless, the E.D. gave all 10 programs its stamp of approval. Education Secretary Richard Riley noted that they conform to the standards adopted in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). "These are the prevailing standards in the country," he said. The NCTM standards have been widely criticized as shortchanging traditional arithmetic skills while heavily promoting the use of calculators.


Mathematicians Renounce Choices 
Within six weeks of the E.D.'s announcement, more than 200 mathematicians, physicians and scholars banded together to denounce the government-anointed curricula for failing to teach basic skills. The group wrote an open letter to Secretary Riley, signed by each member, decrying the programs and asking the department to reconsider its choices. The group published the letter as a full-page ad in the Nov. 18 Washington Post. (The document is available on the Internet at http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com/riley.htm)

Despite the prestige of the letter's authors and signers, including four Nobel Laureates and two winners of the Fields Medal (a top mathematics honor), the E.D. has refused to back away from its endorsements.


Media Reaction  
A Wall Street Journal commentary (1-04-00) called the recommended curricula "horrifyingly short on basics," citing the program, Mathland, as an example. "Mathland does not teach standard arithmetic operations," noted the Journal. "No carrying and borrowing at the blackboard here. Instead, children are supposed to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide. This detour is necessary, the handbook informs, to spare youngsters the awful subjugation of teacher-imposed rules."

The Journal also criticized CMP, observing that, "The division of fractions, an immutable prerequisite for algebra, is absent from its middle-school curriculum."

The commentary included a quote from David Klein of California State University at Northridge, one of the co-authors of the Washington Post letter, who said: "In shutting the door to algebra, Connected Math also closes doors to careers in engineering and science for its graduates."

A Dec. 13, 1999 editorial in The Weekly Standard described a review exercise in one of CMP's 7th grade units that gives incorrect answers to a percentage problem involving basic algebra and arithmetic. "Both answers are wrong by a wide mark," noted the Standard - "deeply, essentially wrong." (See box below.)

The editorial accused CMP of exhibiting "outright hostility towards the precision, coherence, and content of mathematics as an academic discipline worthy of study in its own right." The editors further lamented that classic math topics are "investigated in CMP booklets but never explicitly defined as such, and the standard algorithms they involve are never introduced."

The editorial suggested that Congress abolish the "expert panel system," which was created by law, calling it "self-evidently untrustworthy and dangerous."

"The [Education] Department's math curricula endorsements are the first ill fruit of this system," observed the Standard. "Before the damage spreads to other disciplines, Congress can do something simple and overdue . . . abolish it."


Congressional Hearings 
Early this year, the House Education and the Workforce Committee heard from parents, students and educators who have first-hand experience with the E.D.-recommended math programs. Witnesses complained about low test scores and reduced student performance.

A student told the committee that flawed K-12 math instruction prevented her from doing well in college math courses, a claim supported by Stanford University mathematician James Milgram, one of the authors of the open letter. He testified that, in California, where many of the programs are in place, the number of college freshmen requiring remedial math courses has more than doubled in the past 10 years. In 1989, he noted, 23% of freshmen needed remedial help in math. By 1999, the figure had risen to 55%.

Education Department deputy Kent McGuire defended the math programs and the panel that recommended them. "We should respect the members of the panel and applaud their good-faith efforts," he said.

One parent's testimony summed up the feelings of many who have battled fuzzy math in their children's schools for years: "If medical doctors experimented with our kids in the same fashion school districts do, they would be in jail."


What's the Problem?
In 1980, the town of Rio Rancho, located on a mesa outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, was destined for obscurity. But as a result of hard work by its city officials, it began adding manufacturing jobs at a fast rate. As a result, the city's population grew 239% from 1980 to 1990, making Rio Rancho the fastest-growing "small city" in the United States. The population of Rio Rancho in 1990 was 37,000.

  1. What was the population of Rio Rancho in 1980? 
  2. If the same rate of population increase continues, what will the population be in the year 2000?
Reasoning that Rio Rancho's population was 2.39 times larger in 1990 than in 1980, and would be 2.39 times larger again in 2000, the CMP booklet goes on to recommend dividing 37,000 by 2.39 to arrive at the answer it lists for question A (15,481) and multiplying it by the same amount to get answer B (88,430). (Connected Math Project, 7th Grade Unit)

Both answers are wrong. As every schoolchild was once drilled to know, increasing a number by 239% produces another number not 2.39 but 3.39 times its size.

— From The Weekly Standard, Dec. 13, 1999

U.S. Department of Education Math Program Endorsements
Mathematics programs recommended for "exemplary" status:  
  • College Preparatory Mathematics Program (four-year secondary school program)
  • Connected Mathematics Project (grades 6-8)
  • Core-Plus Mathematics Project (integrated high school program)
  • Interactive Mathematics Program (integrated high school curriculum)
  • Pact Algebra (full-year, technology-based course, grades 7-12)
  • Mathematics programs recommended for "promising" status:
  • Everyday Mathematics (K-6)
  • Mathland (K-6)
  • Middle School Mathematics Through Application Project
  • Number Power (supplemental program for K-6)
  • University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (curriculum for grades 7-12)

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