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Math-Teachers' Survey Finds a Schism Between Practice, Reformers' Vision

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A national survey of mathematics teachers indicates that a huge gap exists between the vision of inquiry-based, mathematical communities envisioned in a set of widely acclaimed national standards for math teaching and the world of classroom practice, where instruction is driven by standardized tests.

The survey--the first in a series of regular soundings that will be taken to gauge the pace at which the standards are adopted in practice--was conducted for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which developed the standards.

To obtain a representative sample of what impact the standards have had on the classroom practice of the nation's 111,000 math teachers, Horizon Research, of Chapel Hill, N.C., elicited responses from almost 1,000 elementary-, middle-, and high-school teachers from 200 schools.

The survey provides evidence that "major barriers'' still exist to widespread implementation of the practices outlined in the well-regarded standards.

"The survey indicates that schools continue to overemphasize drill and computation,'' said Iris M. Carl, the N.C.T.M.'s president. "The United States will never achieve world-class status in mathematics if the best we can do is teach our students to add and subtract progressively larger numbers.''

Roughly half of the teachers surveyed, for example, said they emphasize rote drill and practice over problem-solving and reasoning, because the testing program in their state or district "dictates what they teach.''

And 30 percent said that drill is still their favored approach because they believed that students learn better that way.

The results of the survey were scheduled to be made public at a press conference April 1 in Nashville, on the first day of the N.C.T.M.'s annual meeting.

Results 'No Disappointment'

In an interview, Ms. Carl noted that the standards, while widely publicized, have been in existence only three years and that the survey was an effort to establish a benchmark against which the N.C.T.M. and the National Science Foundation can measure how widely the standards are adopted over time.

"[The findings] are not disappointing in that these are benchmark data that we are receiving,'' she said. "This is a first and important step in finding out where we stand.''

The survey's findings should be of special interest to the various national bodies, notably in the sciences, that are working to establish discipline-specific standards for teaching as a means of sparking reform.

After many years of deliberation, the N.C.T.M. released its "Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics'' in 1989. "Professional Teaching Standards for Teaching Mathematics'' was published last year.

The standards were established to help guide school reform and to define what it means to be "mathematically literate'' in a computerized world where math is increasingly becoming an important tool in fields where it previously was not.

Ms. Carl said that despite pressures from various constituencies to do otherwise, "teachers make every attempt to teach math in the manner in which it is laid out in the standards.''

But the results of the survey seem to indicate that the working world of the majority of math teachers is far removed from the ideal described by the N.C.T.M.

The standards, for example, emphasize the use of calculators, computers, and other tools to help illuminate the symmetry and intricacies of mathematics rather than the mechanics of computation.

But the survey found that better than 70 percent of teachers at all levels indicate that parents do not support the use of calculators in the classroom.

And while the standards place a strong emphasis on "real world'' problem-solving techniques, the survey found that "textbooks are the center of the curriculum in more than half of all classrooms.''

Moreover, the survey notes that most textbooks do not adequately reflect the scope of the math standards.

To help address that problem, the N.C.T.M. has begun to take some steps to help publishers update their products. These efforts include jointly hosting a conference with the Association of American Publishers on the implications of the standards for textbook publishing. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

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