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|NUMBER 227||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||DECEMBER 2004|
Math Battles Add Up: East Meets West |
As U.S., Far East Try Each Other's Methods
Over the last 15 years, public school districts across the U.S. embraced "constructivist math" (also known as "whole math," "new new math," "fuzzy math" or "modern math"), so named because students are supposed to construct their own knowledge instead of learning through drills and memorization of math facts. The constructivist approach has been endorsed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Science Foundation but harshly criticized by college professors of mathematics and science, some 200 of whom signed a letter of protest to the Clinton Administration Education Department. (For a recent example of criticism by an MIT Ph.D. in engineering, see Focus.)
The poor showing of U.S. math test scores in international comparisons has prompted parents and some school districts to consider alternatives. In 1999 the U.S. ranked only 19th among industrialized countries on student math scores. (See Education Reporter, Apr. 2004.) Some of these alternatives draw on pedagogical methods used in Japan or Singapore, countries with a history of producing better student math skills on average. Singapore ranked first in 1999.
Kumon does not try to be fun and its materials are not visually exciting. However, it gives students the drills and mental arithmetic skills that American public schools have been less willing to provide in recent years.
Public school districts are increasingly experimenting with math curricula from Singapore or Japan. Singapore, a nation of 4.5 million people, climbed from the middle of the international rankings to the top in just four years after implementing a new teaching system. It relies on diagrams, models and increasingly complex word problems. The student is taught to find different ways to solve problems instead of simply applying formulas. At times the students solve problems without pencil or paper. There is less repetition than in a traditional math curriculum. However, in Singapore this approach starts with a strong emphasis on computation in early grades before other topics are introduced, which does not necessarily happen in the U.S.
The North Middlesex school district became the first district in Massachusetts to sign on to the Singapore curriculum with encouragement from the state education department.
It is not clear, however, that any particular middle or high school Asian math curriculum represents an improvement over traditional American methods. Far Eastern countries have been revising their approaches for some time and newer methods receive their share of criticism on their home turf. Japan's education reforms in the last two decades led to Japan dropping from first place to fifth place between 1981 and 1999 on an international standardized math test given to junior high school students.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported on Japan's most popular elementary school teacher, who is leading a back-to-basics movement. Hideo Kageyama says that drills serve as mental calisthenics that strengthen the brain and build self-confidence, and he is apparently getting better results on test scores and placement in elite universities. (11-3-04)
Back in the U.S., math curricula are hammered out at the state or district level, and "fuzzy math" continues to provoke controversy. The Rockland, ME school board canceled the Math Connections high school program the night before the start of school on September 2 after board member Audrey Buffington called the planned pilot program "a disaster waiting to happen."
The program was chosen earlier even though only eight schools in the state had used it and four had decided to drop it. Moreover, board member Peter Smith said he spoke to the dean of math at the University of Maine who said Math Connections was not a good program and does not prepare students for college math. (Courier-Gazette, 9-9-04)
A larger problem in math education in the U.S. is the widespread lack of content knowledge among teachers. For example, almost two out of three Philadelphia middle school math teachers failed an exam last spring to gauge their mastery of the subject. (Education Week, 11-3-04)
Teachers' scores on math-knowledge assessments matter more than how much time they spend teaching math, whether they are certified, or whether they have taken extensive mathematics or math teaching courses, Ball reports. (Education Week, 10-13-04)