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Education Reporter

Math Teachers Reverse Course
Is the 17-year math war over?

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The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a report on September 12 called "Curriculum Focal Points for Pre-kindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics." The report made national headlines because it rejects previously endorsed curricula such as "New New Math," "Connected Math," "Chicago Math," "Core-Plus Math," "Whole Math," "Everyday Math," "Interactive Math," and "Integrated Math."

These curricula imbedded the notion that estimates are acceptable in lieu of accurate answers to math problems so long as students feel good about what they are doing and can think up a reason for doing it. These curricula used discussion, coloring, playing games, and early use of calculators. Children were encouraged to "discover" math on their own, construct their own math language, and flounder around with their own approaches to solving problems. This was based on the notion that children can develop a deeper understanding of mathematics when they invent their own methods for performing basic arithmetic calculations.

The 1989 report, which had been the standard for 17 years, flatly opposed drilling students in basic math facts, taught that memorization of math facts was bad, and failed to systematically build from one math concept to another. For 19 years, parents have been demanding back-to-basics and deriding these curricula as "fuzzy math" or "rainforest math."

In October 1999 Bill Clinton's Department of Education officially endorsed ten of the new math courses that were based on the 1989 "standards" for grades K-12, calling them "exemplary" or "promising." Local school districts were urged to adopt one of them, and were baited with federal money inducements.

One of these department-approved "exemplary" courses, "MathLand," directed the children to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide. The kids weren't told that wiser adults have already discovered how to do all those basic computations rapidly and accurately.

Nobel Laureates opposed New Math 
It wasn't only parents who sized up fuzzy math curricula as subtracting rather than adding to the skills of schoolchildren. On Nov. 18, 1999, more than 200 prestigious mathematicians and scholars, including four Nobel Laureates and two winners of the Fields Medal (the highest math honor), published a full-page ad in the Washington Post criticizing the "exemplary" curricula. But Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley refused to back away from the Department's endorsements and the 1989 "standards."

With such vague parameters for courses in math, trendy instructors began advancing their political agenda by injecting ethnic studies into math textbooks. Some taught what Diane Ravitch called "ethnomathematics," the far-out notion that traditional math is too Western-civ and therefore students should be taught in ways that relate to their ancestral culture.

The diversion of math into the teaching of political correctness was illustrated by the "anti-racist multicultural math" curriculum adopted in Newton, Massachusetts. Test scores dropped after this curriculum's top priority became "Respect for Human Differences."

During the Fuzzy Math era, 300 public schools adopted Singapore Math and those students are turning in good scores. Homeschoolers are successful with Singapore Math, too.

The new National Council report tries to finesse its dramatic switch back to memorization by recommending that the curriculum focus on "quick recall" of multiplication and division, the area of two-dimensional shapes, and an understanding of decimals.

Before the 1989 mistake, U.S. students ranked number-one in international mathematics tests. Since then, U.S. students have dropped to fifteenth, far behind the high performance of Singapore, Japan, and most industrialized countries.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Recommended Standards: www.nctm.org/focalpoints/

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