Math Gadfly Calls Math Faddists’ Bluff

Math Gadfly Calls Math Faddists’ Bluff
Friday, August 7, 1998

WAYNE BISHOP, a professor of mathematics at Cal State L.A. is a math gadfly in his spare time. Bishop likes to call trendy new-new math boosters’ bluff by checking out their schools’ scores and seeing if their fads hurt or help students.

Bishop’s findings are not pretty, friend.

Start with Roscoe Elementary School in Los Angeles. MathLand, the ultra- trendy new-new math program, touts Roscoe as a MathLand success story on its Web page. In 1996, then-Roscoe principal Ruth Bunyan wrote a letter for MathLand boasting, “We believe that our use of MathLand materials and instructional strategies have made a significant difference during the past year.”

(For the unitiated, new-new math is math that eschews exercises that emphasize “predetermined numerical results.”)

So how did MathLand’s star school — where MathLand folks coached the teachers to increase performance — fare in California’s new Star test? In the bottom quartile. The average Roscoe student score was 21 — at the bottom 21st percentile — for second graders, 22 for third graders, 20 for fourth graders and 18 for fifth graders. Only 10 percent of fifth graders scored above the national average.

Students at the pet middle school of the former head of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), Jack Price — a faddist of the first water — have suffered the same fate.

In 1995, Price told his peers, “We need to let everyone know that successes can be found in every part of the country.” As an example, he cited a program at which he worked one day a week with a dedicated math department faculty that had completely reworked its curriculum “to be in line with the (NCTM) standards.”

“He was depressed about the fact that some of us curmudgeons weren’t catching on, ” Bishop explained.

Guess what? When Bishop checked out test data for Santa Ana Unified’s Spurgeon Intermediate School, he found failure and mediocrity, then and now.

A build-it-and-they-should come success? Sprugeon’s Star scores don’t show it. Price’s pet school ranked in the bottom quartile. The average percentile for sixth graders was 23, 24 for seventh graders and 22 for eighth graders. Only 12 percent of the schools’ eighth graders scored above the national average.

Apologists might argue that the student body make-up — the school is overwhelmingly minority, a majority of students have limited English skills — mitigates this dismal showing. I can’t agree. I can find nothing understandable about minority kids failing. I’ll add that if Price wants to tell America how to teach math, he ought to be able to demonstrate that students enrolled in his model program at least can pass a math test.

(Besides, Price has boasted about the “great deal of research” of which he is aware as to how females and minorities “do not learn the same way” as white males. So a large minority pool should be a piece of cake for him.)

Price, now at Cal Poly Pomona, had the misfortune to pick up his phone yesterday when I rang to ask why most of his poor charges flunked the Star test.

“Is that surprising?” Price asked.

If I didn’t know what I know about new-new math, I would be surprised.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if you knew anything about how instruction and assessment are tied together,” He answered. “You don’t teach people apples and then give them a test for oranges.”

But in your 1995 address, you said the NCTM standards included basic skills.

“What do you want me to say?” Price asked, before he said he didn’t want to chat anymore.

No doubt he prefers an audience that is more accepting about failing innocent kids.

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle