Where’s the Math?

Where’s the Math?
Sunday, October 17, 1999


THIS MONTH, the U.S. Department of Education came out with a list of 10 “exemplary” or “promising” math education programs. Kings County fourth-grade teacher Doug Swords was shocked at the department’s bad choices.

Some three years ago, his school district adopted MathLand, a math curriculum that prefers not to give lessons with “predetermined numerical results.” The department of Educrats, oops, I mean, Education, rated MathLand as “promising.” Today, he said 14 out of 18 teachers use MathLand only as a supplement. “I stashed away my Addison-Wesley textbooks, as did a few other teachers,” he explained.

Do you teach your students how to multiply? I asked him. (You wouldn’t think that would be something I’d have to ask, but these days, it is.) Yes, he said. Is MathLand helpful in teaching kids to multiply? “No, quite frankly,” Swords answered.

UC Berkeley math professor Hung-Hsi Wu couldn’t believe the department described MathLand as “promising.” He’d describe MathLand as “execrable.”

Or how about: “I can’t believe it’s math class.” A second-grade MathLand exercise called Fantasy Lunch instructs students to think up their fantasy lunch, draw it on paper, then cut out the “food” and place their drawings into a bag.

A frantic teacher wrote to me two years ago, furious that she had spent 75 minutes on that exercise and there was no math in it. It was “like therapy,” she said. On more than one occasion, her students asked her, “Can we do some real math now?”

Wu had problems with the other nine picks as well. While there were things he liked about the high school programs, they lacked what he called “mathematical closure. You start something, you ought to finish it.”

He said almost all of his students took more traditional math classes not cited as “exemplary” or “promising” by the Department of Education. That wouldn’t surprise Melissa Lynn, who got As in high-school math, then placed in the bottom 1 percent in the University of Michigan math placement test. She blames the Core-Plus program which the department rated as “exemplary.” “It had very good intentions, and wanted you to apply real principles to real life scenarios,” she explained this spring, “but it was missing the crucial element of algebra.“

Wayne Bishop, a math professor at Cal State L.A. who is the Ralph Nader of math curricula, sees the department’s move as a reaction against California’s return to math sanity — after a mad fling when state educrats embraced “there is no right answer” new-new math curricula.

He’s right. The selection panel appoint ed by the department had as a main criterion that the math series ascribe to trendy standards put out by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

Don’t ask me why. Last year Bishop looked at the scores of some of the students subjected to the brilliance of new- new math wizards. In 1995, NCTM Chairman Jack Price boasted about a program on which he worked. Turns out, Price’s star school ranked in the bottom quartile nationally in the STAR test last year. Only 12 percent of the school’s eighth graders scored above the national average. Price called that a successful program.

The department cited data that show schools whose test scores improved with MathLand. Bishop isn’t impressed. “They appear to have excluded data where MathLand scores dropped,” he noted.

An administrator from an urban district that stopped using MathLand had just visited a school that had seen a 27 percent increase in its math scores after buying a traditional math series that didn’t rate in the department’s Top 10. Under ideal circumstances, he said, MathLand could work, but urban districts don’t have too many ideal circumstances.

Bill Evers of Stanford’s Hoover Institution called the department’s Top-10 picks “unconditional surrender to fuzziness.”

Fuzziness? The department praised one K-6 math program because, “Features include problem solving; linking past experience to new concepts; sharing ideas; developing concept readiness through hands-on explorations; cooperative learning through small-group activities; and home-school partnerships.”

Sounds more like marriage counseling than math class.

The problem: It’s not the kids who need counseling here. It’s the adults who care so little about children’s success that they would assert that Fantasy Lunch makes for a “promising” math program.


You can reach Debra J. Saunders on The Gate at sfgate.com.

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle