Correcting math’s blackboard bunglers

Nov 5, 1998

Correcting math’s blackboard bunglers

(Accompanying Ramirez cartton shows a man at a desk, nameplate on desk says “public education” and the man is reading “Why Johnny can’t read” – upside down.)

They say you can’t fight city hall – but a group of California parents calling itself Mathematically Correct has taken on the statehouse itself and won the right to restore a rigorous math curriculum to public education.

They also say that as California goes, so goes the nation.

The erstwhile Golden State has indeed been the locus of a nationwide contagion of educational “reforms;’ from Whole Language to anti-American propaganda masquerading as history to science-as-radical-ecologism. Since California is the largest public school market, half the country uses textbooks originally pitched to that market.

The Whole Math fad, better known to its traditionalist enemies as fuzzy math, has since 1989 become notorious for its verbalizing and visualizing approach to mathematics, its use of concrete “manipulatives” instead of abstract number concepts, its demotion of the teacher from classroom leader to “co-discoverer” and its reliance on calculators even in the lower grades.

Hallmarks of “fuzziness” also include a fixation on “everyday, real- world” applications, on “method” or “process” rather than domain-specific content, on “higher-order thinking” rather than memorization of facts, and on team-work rather than individual achievement –

The idea of math without numbers sounded dazzlingly innovative to many educators; it was in conveying any sort of mathematical proficiency to students that the miraculous new method broke down.

Parents watched in horror as their children whipped out calculators to determine 10 percent of 470. Fuzzy algebra texts droned on trendily for a hundred pages before getting down to a single equation. State test scores nosedived. One half to two thirds of freshmen entering the Cal State University system needed at least one year of remedial math, despite being among the top third of graduating seniors.

Among those horrified parents were the founders of Mathematically Correct (MC), “dedicated to the proposition that 2+2=4.”

Cofounder Martha Schwartz recalls the night she and her husband “discovered we were not alone!” She was a college geology professor “reacting to the damage done to good kids and the suffering of the best teachers,” her husband Rick, a high school chemistry teacher whose opposition to “fuzzy science” had earned him “un-veiled threats” from district superiors.

At an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego that the Schwartzes attended in October 1995, Michael McKeown, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute, closed his remarks with a critique of whole math.

‘After a minute or so of this, Rick and I were almost jumping up and down in our chairs. Within a week or so we had formed Mathematically Correct!’

The fledgling force began by contacting anyone and everyone they had heard of who dissented from the new order in math education. Email and the Internet were crucial to this molecular process. All the individuals contacted had hitherto believed their school districts’ solemn protestations that they were “the only ones who had a problem with the math reform?’

Paul Clopton of UC. San Diego, instrumental in setting up the group’s website, points out that “when parents get together, the bureaucrats’ first defense fades away. As each new parent told their story, we were constantly re- energized”

At first, efforts focused on convincing local districts – Petaluma, Novato, Escondi do, San Diego, Torrance and others – to get rid of existing whole math programs. Larry Gipson, a design engineer consultant and cofounder of MC, led a (successful) fight in Escondido because “I didn’t want my kids experimented on. . . . They were telling the kids to invent their own math out of thin air.”

Mr Gipson formed Parents for Math Choice and lobbied his school board. for just tat choice between traditional and whole approaches. Today 70 percent of district parents opt for traditional, and parental per-mission is required before any experimental program is implemented.

Larry Gipson jokingly refers to himself as “the token conservative” of Mathematically Correct, and indeed, contrary to alarums sounded by the fad- ridden National Council of ‘Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), most MC members are politically liberal even if academically traditional. Martha Schwartz, during her own local fight, found herself annoyed most by having to point out “that as a secular Jewish geology teacher and registered Democrat, I was not, as charged, a Christian fundamentalist conservative – but that those were all legal things to be!’

Mrs. Schwartz continues, “I’m always outraged when people claim females and minorities can’t learn math or science like ‘regular people! “Lest that sound like a distortion of her opponents’ real views, listen to the former head of the NCTM, Jack Price, in an April 1996 debate with Michael McKeown on San Diego radio;

“What we have now is nostalgia math. It’s the mathematics we’ve always had, good for the most part for high-socioeconomic-status white males!’

Despite some successes at the local level, MC decided to aim for an overhaul of the whole state math framework. Revised every seven years, it is this which dictate’ content and methodology prospective textbooks. The group pushed for tough new K- 12 content standards and for MC to be represented on the appointed Academic Standards Commission. They I hammered legislators with data non grata about whole math’s dismal showing on all manner of tests, wrote open letters and critiques, and repeatedly gave testimony.

The standards adopted by California at the end of 1997 are a realization of Mathematically Correct’s belief that, in Mr. McKeown’s words, “Mastery of the basic the key prerequisite for effective problem solving and one of most effective ways to build understanding!’

The new standards have been denounced by the superintendent of public instruction, who has criss-crossed the state urging teachers to simply ignore them. But an independent review by the Fordham Foundation of America’s state math standards recently rated California’s No.1 and even compared them favorably to Japan’s.

Can the group now declare victory and go home? MC member Leslie Schwarze reflects philosophically that “the battle’s been going on since the 1700s -whether children are innately good or need to be civilized through parenting.

“This baffle will never be over.”

Marian Kester Coombs is a contributing writer for The Washington Times, specializing in education topics.

Reprinted by permission