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Back to February Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 253 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS FEBRUARY 2007

States Respond to New Math Guidelines: Back to Basics?

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Waves of public debate over math education have hit Washington and several other states, since the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released its new guidelines in September of 2006.

The NCTM report, "Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics," was the most important since the infamous 1989 standards (see Education Reporter, Nov. 2006). "Focal Points" recommends that states simplify their math standards and objectives to teach just three crucial concepts in each grade. Compared to the 1989 standards, the new recommendations place a much stronger emphasis on basic skills and procedures, such as "quick recall" of multiplication and division facts in 4th grade, and multiplying fractions in 6th grade.

The 1989 standards profoundly affected math curricula in school districts across the nation. Only half of all states now require students to memorize multiplication tables at any point during their academic career. It's little wonder, then, that "Focal Points" has given educators and parents much to talk about — especially in Washington State, where a math crisis is making the discussion urgent.

Washington's class of 2008 is supposed to be the first in which every student must pass the 12th grade WASL math exam in order to graduate; but only 58% of this group passed the 10th grade math WASL last year. Gov. Chris Gregoire and Supt. Terry Bergeson support a measure, now pending in the legislature, to postpone the math requirement until 2011.

Other indicators in Washington State all point in the same direction. Only 52% of 7th graders pass the math WASL. Tutoring revenue has increased 340% in ten years. As in other states, a significant number of parents have banded together against the reform math curriculum they blame for students' math woes. Their group, "Where's the Math," includes "Washington parents and educators for mathematically correct curriculum." Spokeswoman M.J. McDermott "stars" in a short online movie explaining the shortcomings of Washington's two most popular reform math curricula, TERC Investigations and Everyday Mathematics. "Students who learn math by TERC Investigations rarely become efficient, confident, and fluent math users," she concludes after demonstrating the TERC approach to two-digit multiplication.

About two million children nationwide use the other curriculum, Everyday Math. Although Harvard mathematician Wilfried Schmid has called it the "least objectionable among the reform programs," McDermott demonstrates that neither of the textbook's two-digit multiplication processes (algorithms) is as efficient or straightforward as the standard multiplication algorithm familiar to all parents. Under pressure to innovate, both of these textbooks have devised methods that make arithmetic more complicated for children, while still failing to help them understand the underlying concepts of arithmetic (which is reform math's goal and justification).

McDermott quotes at length from the teacher's edition of Everyday Math. The authors

"do not believe it is worth students' time and effort to fully develop highly efficient paper-and-pencil algorithms for all possible . . . problems. Mastery of the intricacies of such algorithms is a huge endeavor, one that experience tells us is doomed to failure for many students. It is simply counter-productive to invest many hours of precious class time on such algorithms . . . particularly because quotients can be found quickly and accurately with a calculator."

The new "Focal Points" report emphasizes that the algorithms in question are just such basic skills: long division, multiplying and dividing fractions, etc.

"Where's the Math" has seized on "Focal Points" as a tool against reform math, and Washington school administrators have taken up a defensive posture against the report. Supt. Bergeson announced in October that she stands by existing standards and encouraged the state to "stay the course." Both she and Gov. Gregoire blamed failed implementation by teachers rather than the curriculum itself.

It remains to be seen whether the public outcry in Washington will lead to back-to-basics math standards, but it is likely to do so. Maryland is also the scene of much discussion over "Focal Points." Critics of the math standards that Maryland has been using point out that the curriculum is anything but focused; the objectives for each grade number between 50 and 60, with much repetition of concepts in each year. The Maryland Department of Education is now meeting with math supervisors to discuss "Focal Points," with a view toward adopting the new standards.

At least 12 states have told NCTM they plan to change their math standards based on the new recommendations. California has been moving away from "reform" math for nearly a decade, and Indiana and Massachusetts have already instituted back-to-basics changes. Utah, North Carolina and Florida are among the states that plan to revise their standards within the next few years. If all these large states follow the NCTM's new advice, the textbook industry will almost certainly respond with major changes to math materials.

View information on NCTM's report online at www.nctm.org/focalpoints/intro.asp. View Where's the Math's movie, Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1qee-bTZI.


 
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