Man of Science Has a Problem With Real Math

DEBRA J. SAUNDERS — Man of Science Has a Problem With Real Math
Friday, December 19, 1997

THIS STORY demonstrates why you can’t trust Clinton’s education gurus to write national tests for America’s students. If there’s a sure thing in life, it’s that D.C. educrats will dumb down any subject, given half a chance and millions of dollars.

The tale begins this month as California’s state Board of Education was about to vote on math standards for public school students. A standards panel had written a document rich in trendy educratese. (“Show mathematical reasoning in solutions in a variety of ways.”) The board wanted — and ultimately approved — a meatier document with solid standards for computation and less fluff about writing about math. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

By injecting more math into math — actually expecting kids to memorize multiplication tables in the third grade and master long division in the fourth — the board invited the ire of state schools chief Delaine Eastin and the federal government. On December 11, the day before the final vote, Luther S. Williams, assistant director of the federally funded National Science Foundation, fired off a letter to board president Yvonne Larson. Basics wags call it “the blackmail letter.”

Williams, who didn’t call me back, criticized the new standards for not “elevating problem-solving and critical thinking.” His letter chided the board for preferring the “wistful or nostalgic `back-to-basics’ approach,” which he wrote, “has chronically and dismally failed.”

He then reminded Larsen that his bureaucracy gives grants totaling more than $50 million of taxpayer money to six California school districts, including Oakland. “You must surely understand,” he wrote, that his group “cannot support individual school systems that embark on a course that substitutes computational proficiencies for a commitment to deep, balanced, mathematical learning.”

On what planet does this man of science live?

First, Williams has a little jurisdictional problem. President Clinton says he doesn’t want the federal government to butt into local school business. Also, the guy works for a science — not math — agency. But he is so arrogant and power drunk that he feels free to sic his Science Foundation on California math dissidents.

Second, the state’s commitment to “deep, balanced mathematical learning” — aka new-new math — has resulted in computational deficiencies, as well as general arithmetical idiocy. For some years, trendy California educators have focused on students writing about math, repeatedly explaining how equations work and exploring their feelings about math. They’ve also taken to giving students credit for wrong answers. Thus, “critical thinking” has come to mean not being critical of students.

The result: In the last National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, California fourth-graders scored behind students from every state but Mississippi and Louisiana. Only 13 percent were rated proficient. Eastin has suggested that the state board should “get out of the dark ages.” She ought to get the schools out of the dark ages.

No wonder some parents are “nostalgic,” as Williams put it, for the days when basics were emphasized, and cash registers all had numbers on them instead of pictures of hamburgers. Back in the days of what Williams classified as failure, students scored an average of 22 points higher on math SATs.

Here’s a novel thought. Let the National Science Foundation give a grant to solve the great mystery of modern education: How is it that swells like Williams can look at the 1950s as years of math failure, but see no problem with high- school kids needing a calculator to compute 10 percent? How can you say you stand for problem solving without being able to recognize a problem?