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Parents Must Act To Change School Math

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"Five girls and three boys reached the top of Hurricane Mountain. How many children reached the top together?"

"Mark, Theo, and Jake are brothers. Theo was born second. Mark is the youngest. Who is the oldest?"

In an unscientific survey, I passed these problems to 15 children, all under 8 years old; two were kindergartners. To no one's surprise, they solved them handily.

These problems, however, did not come from 1st- or 2nd-grade textbooks; they appear in a mathematics textbook for 5th-graders in one of the most prestigious public schools in California.

I have lived in different cities from coast to coast, and I have noticed that everywhere, instruction in addition and subtraction is repeated religiously from 1st to 7th grade. As a frustrated parent, I once stormed into a high-school principal's office to protest--futilely--the repetition of division and multiplication in my son's 10th-grade class. At another time, I was saddened to discover that what was taught to 14-year-olds in the Netherlands and Indonesia--the solution of quadratic equations--was given at the college level here.

My anguish is shared by many immigrant parents. In Taiwan, a 5th-grader has already started studying motion problems ("At what time will the two cars meet?"). In the Dutch system, multiplication and division are considered finished by the 3rd-grade level.

Our 10-year-olds, however, are still in the crawling stage with the most basic of fractions (one-third equals two-sixths). When I took a peek at a Japanese 5th-grade-level math book in a bookstore in Los Angeles, I felt sad, embarrassed, and outraged. Who made the decision that our 5th graders, even in classes for the gifted, are not qualified to learn elementary algebra (negative numbers and first-degree equations) and geometry (Pythagorean theorem) like their counterparts in Asia?

I shudder to think that if this is happening in schools that are nationally ranked in the 90th percentile, what is being taught to our children in the inner cities?

We are closing our eyes to the imminent peril of losing our competitive technological edge because we are overconfident in the creative approach of our educational system. Often we ask ourselves: If our educational system is so tragically inferior, why are we still a country of innovation?

The creativity fostered in many of our writing and art classrooms is a marvel to us immigrant parents. When my daughter was only 8, her imagination had been stimulated to create a newspaper that reported the kidnapping of Demeter's daughter Persephone by Hades and a beauty contest won by Aphrodite. Now 10, she is to create an island and formulate its development.

In no other country in the world would she obtain such opportunity and guidance to fulfill her creativity. But only in a few Third World countries would we find children of her age still repeating multiplication tables.

We hear repeatedly about how our children fail in international math tests against European and Asian students. We point our fingers to the woeful situation in the inner cities as the cause of our national score's decline. We don't want to recognize that our illiteracy in math has permeated our most "secure" suburbs. Teachers and parents--even we who work in business or science--appear to have a nearly sacred belief in our country's invincibility as a technology power.

The reason is our ethnocentricity. We are reluctant to acknowledge that the world is shrinking; we even refuse to acknowledge that the world has gone metric. We are lulled by the illusion that those foreign scientists with regimented cultures will never catch up with us.

Those "robots," however, have accomplished what was seemingly impossible 20 years ago: They have taken over our highways, threatened our leadership in computer technology, learned our language (while their technical papers are Greek to our monolingual scientists), swamped our still-excellent graduate schools to milk our knowledge, and sent their more flexible teachers to study our creative approaches to education.

Ours is a government by the people, but we have abdicated much of our role. As long as we put the future of our children in the hands of politicians, little will be done to improve American education. Little was accomplished until victims of drunken drivers took to the streets and the halls of government. We parents must do the same; we must become active in demanding meaningful changes in how our children are taught math and science.

Many attribute Japan's success to the role of kyoiku--"education mothers," where behind every high-scoring Japanese student stands a mother completely involved in her child's education. If we can spend hours at home teaching our children to hit like Jose Canseco, why can't we provide time to inspire them with the fun and mystery of geometry and atoms?

American parents, wake up! With our abundance of creativity, but without our strength in math and science, our children may inherit a country that produces rock music, movies, and designer jeans--and nothing else. At that time, do not blame it on the foreigners or the government. The government is we, the people, the apathetic and complacent American parents.

Vol. 9, Issue 35, Page 20

Published in Print: May 23, 1990, as Parents Must Act To Change School Math
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