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Education Reporter

Disconnecting Schoolchildren from 'Connected' Math

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PLANO, TX -- A group of parents in this Dallas suburb has filed suit against the local school district demanding that a program called "Connected Math" either be scrapped and replaced with traditional math, or that traditional math at least be included as an alternate choice. These parents say "Connected Math" is lowering academic standards and failing to teach their children basic math skills. They filed suit after trying unsuccessfully for 18 months to persuade the Plano district to reintroduce traditional math classes.

According to the Washington Times (Sept. 7, 1999), more than 550 parents in the district signed a petition requesting the return of traditional math instruction. "Parents there are very upset," said attorney Tom Stack of the Texas Justice Foundation in San Antonio, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the six families. "Many have gone so far as to offer to buy their own textbooks."

"Connected Math" and a related program, "Chicago Math," are the latest in a series of "whole math" curricula that for years have been referred to as "fuzzy math" or "New New Math." "Connected Math" has also surfaced in Maryland and in several other states. "Chicago Math" was developed by the University of Chicago School Math Project (UCSMP), and is being implemented in a number of school districts. These curricula are often called "standards" math because they are based on guidelines developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989.

Critics have complained that the NCTMs "standards" are not really standards at all, but a "progressive teaching philosophy" masquerading as math standards. Mathematician William G. Quirk, Ph.D., whose career has included teaching 26 different math and computer science courses at three different universities, noted in 1997 that "nowhere in the NCTMs 258 pages of standards do they suggest that kids should remember any specific math facts." Dr. Quirk warned that calculator skills, "pushed by the NCTM" and emphasized in "whole math" classes, "shouldnt be substituted for mastery of the traditional skills of arithmetic."

Standards Math vs. Classical Math

A report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a non-profit, non-partisan research institute headquartered in San Antonio, and the Education Connection of Texas, a non-profit organization providing information to the public about elementary and secondary education, states that the NCTMs goals are to make students "feel confident about math, value math, solve problems, and reason as well as communicate mathematically."

According to the NCTM, math should: (1) focus on applied, not theoretical, learning; (2) utilize calculators for computation; (3) develop process skills before computational skills; and (4) be constructed by the student with the teacher serving as a guide.

"Standards" math doctrine holds that:

  • The highest form of learning is the development of an abstract ability to think independently and solve problems that transfers across all fields of knowledge (but is not specific to math).

  • It is more valuable for students to learn how to acquire and analyze information than to learn a specific body of knowledge because technology renders specific information readily accessible and rapidly obsolete; and

  • Learning is most effective in the context of complex "real world" problems and least effective when it is focused on the acquisition and practice of basic component skills.

"Classical" or traditional math holds the opposite view. Students are taught facts and skills that make up a specific body of knowledge developed by mathematicians and handed down through centuries of Western civilization. Teachers instruct and correct students to ensure that this knowledge is successfully acquired.

According to the TPPF, "Classical math is taught as a specifically organized sequence of building math language, symbols, and manipulations." Students master basic components through repeated practice, and when the use of basic skills becomes automatic, learning can be effectively focused on developing abstract and sophisticated problem solving. "Advocates of traditional math," says TPPF, "believe that knowledge, unlike technology, never grows obsolete."

Chicago Math

Illinois parents have been fighting their own battle with "standards" math. One mother testified before her local school board that she was shocked to discover that, when her son entered 5th grade, he still had not learned basic math skills. She hired a tutor, who confirmed that the child "needed major work on these skills." She began talking to other parents with children in various grades, all of whom were having similar problems.

"I spent weeks on the Internet, and was spurred on by the endless numbers of web sites, newspaper articles, personal stories, research papers and the like, all with the same identical stories and problems as mine across the country," she testified. "As I researched, I realized that this is a national crisis."

The mother, Vicky Kennedy, explained to the school board that "Chicago Math":

  • Is a major deviation from traditional math education.

  • States that its mission is to change mathematics education in the U.S.

  • Is funded in part by the NCTM and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

  • Uses no textbooks, only workbooks, which are not intended to come home.

  • Fails to teach students to master skills and to systematically build from one concept to another.

  • Promotes no drill of basic math facts, de-emphasizes basic math in general, and supports the use of calculators, working in groups, and math "discovery."

  • Promotes the use of a facilitator instead of a teacher.

"There is no one correct answer as long as students feel good about what they are doing," she stated. "The program promotes math discussion, drawing, coloring, and playing games." (See "Everyday Math," this page.)

She urged the school board to adopt a fair representation of traditional math for the 1999/2000 school year, and reports that progress is being made.

Warning Signs

The TPPF lists six warning signs to parents that their children are enrolled in "standards"-based or fuzzy math programs. These include when students (1) direct their own learning, (2) work in groups to teach one another, (3) construct their own math language, facts, and computations, (4) are not required to memorize facts or formulas, (5) use calculators as the primary form of computation, and (6) are taught that correct solutions are not important.

The Standards Math Money Trail

"Standards" math programs and textbooks have been developed and funded by the NSF. They dovetail with the federal initiatives Goals 2000 and School-to-Work, and with various statewide initiatives. Though their primary targets are school districts with large minority or "at-risk" populations, the TPPF maintains that "standards" math has penetrated every school district in the nation.

Many say it is the federal dollar that has made these programs so enticing. Last February, Texas Board of Education Members Richard Neill and David Bradley wrote an editorial entitled "The Fuzzy Math Experiment: Show Me the Money!" It provided details of a grant program that funnels millions of dollars to Texas school districts through the Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI), a federally-funded program developed by a state-funded entity at the University of Texas. The grants pay for techer training and classroom materials to implement "Connected Math" in 43 Texas school districts.

Test Results

A chief complaint about "standards" math programs is that students scores on standardized tests drop following their implementation. In Palo Alto, California, for example, test scores fell 28 points after whole math was introduced in 1995. In August 1998, the Texas Education Agency reported poor algebra scores statewide after an algebra textbook, focusing on jalapeno recipes, Vietnam War protests, and radical environmentalism, relegated quadratic equations to the back of the book.

More recently, a front-page headline in the Chicago Sun Times (Sept. 10, 1999) screamed: "Math tests a mess." The newspaper reported that 57% of 8th graders failed to meet state math standards in the new Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT).

Public Opinion

Surveys by the New York-based research firm, Public Agenda, have shown that Americans favor teacher-directed, structured math instruction, and want schools to require that students give correct answers to math questions and problems. These studies also show that most Americans favor the teaching of paper and pencil computation skills prior to introducing calculators, and that they believe standardized tests should measure individual accountability.

The TPPF found that Texans "strongly support traditional or classical math instruction, and reject reforms introduced by standards math programs." In 1997, when Texas adopted a new curriculum entitled the "Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), newspapers throughout the state protested the "feel good and know nothing math," The adoption of several "standards-based" textbooks in 1998 produced a sim-ilar outcry. (See "Textbooks," page 3.)

In Plano, the parent activists are hoping to win their case against "Connected Math." Noted one concerned parent not involved in the lawsuit: "Maybe its time the school district stopped fighting parents with their own tax dollars and started listening to them."

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