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U.S. Math Gap Assailed by Fed Chief
'Fuzzy Math' Persists Despite Parental Protests
Alan Greenspan
Alan Greenspan
Critics of American math education picked up an unexpected ally when Alan Greenspan pointedly contrasted the math proficiency of U.S. students to that of their Asian rivals.

At an appearance before the Senate Banking Committee in early February, the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman said the real threat to the U.S. standard of living isn't from jobs leaving for cheaper Asian locations, but from declining U.S. educational standards.

American students ranked 19th in a 1999 study of mathematical ability among 8th graders in 38 countries. Students from Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan made the top 5. China and India didn't participate.

"What will ultimately determine standard of living of this country is the skill of the people," Greenspan told the committee. "We do something wrong, which obviously people in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan do far better."

In 1989, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics published a set of provocative recommendations that transformed American math education. Starting in 1992, the "whole math" system that grew out of those standards (derided by critics as "fuzzy math" or "new-new math") was adopted in California and many other states. The role of the teacher was minimized, computation was left to calculators, and students were encouraged to think there are no right or wrong answers to mathematical problems. By 1997, math test scores had declined so much that the California Regents voted unanimously to reject the reforms despite aggressive lobbying by the pro-fuzzy math National Science Foundation.

In 1999, after the U.S. Department of Education announced support for ten fuzzy math programs, some 200 scientists and mathematicians, including four Nobel Prize winners, published an open letter in the Washington Times urging withdrawal of the recommendations. The department refused.

In an indication that some educators now realize that newer U.S. math teaching methods don't work, at least 200 schools now use Singaporean math textbooks, according to a report last year in Singapore's Straits Times. (bloomberg.com, 2-17-04) Spurred by parental concerns about slipping math scores, a Detroit-area school board recently agreed to bring back an optional traditional math curriculum in secondary schools after about a decade of offering only an "integrated math" program combining arithmetic, algebra and geometry into one class. (Detroit News, 2-25-04)

Critics of fuzzy math still have their work cut out for them. In the Parkway school district in St. Louis County, MO, dozens of parents have complained of the failure to teach arithmetic skills in middle schools. "There's no reinforcement of basic math facts," an engineer and mother of three charged in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2-18-04). "You can't teach problem solving and critical thinking until students have mastered the basics," noted another mother who organized a group of parents concerned that elementary-school students in the district get too little practice in multiplication, division, decimals and fractions.

Nationwide, students' arithmetic skills have either declined or remained flat since 1990, according to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.

In Fairfax County, VA, a famously successful middle-school math teacher proudly rejects the anti-drill doctrines of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics and refuses to use newer textbooks with colorful pictures. "When you start telling me that you have to print books with 10 different colors on every page, with charts and stories about the rainforest.I say, no, no," Vern Williams told the Washington Post (12-23-03). "I think we are doing our students a disservice."

Controversy dogs plans by Illinois to focus more on basic skills in the design of its standardized tests. "It's not uniformly horrible, but the main thrust is back-to-basics - multiple-choice questions emphasizing routine tasks, rote memorization and computational skills," one math educator complained in the Chicago Tribune (1-4-04), apparently unaware that basic skills are precisely what many parents believe has been lacking in math education.

In a letter to the Illinois board of education signed by 40 educators, the new test design was attacked as a "radical departure" from the current state math standards and an abandonment of the reasoning and problem-solving skills emphasized in classrooms over the past decade. A flashpoint for criticism is the allocation of 20% of the test questions to "naked math" - a dirty word to educators who believe math is meaningful to students only when placed in the context of real-world situations.

If "naked math" problems don't belong in elementary-school standardized tests, how can the students be expected to excel on the SAT and ACT tests in high school, which abound in such questions?

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