Published Online: March 12, 1997

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Facing Deadline, Calif. Is Locked In Battle Over How To Teach Math

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Sacramento, Calif.

Homework can often reveal a lot about a student--whether adult or child.

And nowhere has that been more evident of late than with the group of Californians charged with revising the blueprint for the state's K-12 math curriculum.

Assigned to write down what they envision, members of the framework committee turned in homework at a meeting here late last month so filled with disparate viewpoints that the panelists couldn't even agree on whether they had reached any common ground. Only later during the two-day session did the members feel confident enough to agree to draft language on such issues as the need for professional development for teachers.

The strong and varied passions on the panel reflect the feelings of residents around the state on K-12 math education. Known as a cultural bellwether, California this time is leading with the nastiest, highest-profile battle over who knows best when it comes to teaching mathematics to schoolchildren.

From Palo Alto to San Diego, the debate has been raging for several years. But now, with a 22-member committee facing a summer deadline to revise the state framework, the stakes are higher.

The zeal with which the parties have dug in has left the impression that "it isn't a question now of what is best for children, but who's going to win," said Jack Price, the immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

California, of course, is not the only state where there is disagreement over which mathematical approach leads to the strongest student achievement. Similar criticisms of state or local math-reform ideas have sprung up in Iowa, Montana, and Texas.

In fact, the rancor over K-16 math issues nationally spurred a conference in Washington late last week. The nonprofit Education Development Center of Newton, Mass., sponsored the event, with support from the National Science Foundation. Organizers hoped to encourage constructive debate on math issues among about 50 invited mathematicians, math educators, and teachers.

'Bring Math Back'

Opposing camps in the debate represent those who believe in the reform agenda set up by the standards that the NCTM wrote and released in 1989 and those who don't. California modeled the 1992 framework that it currently uses on those national standards, which are themselves now being revised.

Believers include the California Mathematics Council, an organization of 12,000 teachers affiliated with the national math educators' council. Some parents, teachers, and others, however, prefer a more traditional approach.

Among other aims, math reformers nationwide have sought to emphasize classroom innovations such as conceptual understanding, mental computation and estimation, cooperative work, problem-solving, and the use of calculators and computers. They have downplayed--but not forsaken--rote memorization, isolated paper-and-pencil computations, drill and practice, and "teaching by telling."

Margaret DeArmond, the president of the state math council, maintains that a changing social and technological climate is driving the need for such change. Children must understand the concepts behind math because of "what kind of jobs students need in the future," she argued.

On the other side are people like Martha Schwartz, one of the founders of the anti-reform group Mathematically Correct, which has stoked the debate with its Web site on the Internet. Ms. Schwartz, who sits on the framework committee with another Mathematically Correct founder, contends that strong content is missing: "I want to bring mathematics back into the classroom."

In the math framework, "there's a lot of philosophizing," she said. "Nowhere do you see expectations.

"We need to be much more specific and need to focus on skills and knowledge," said Ms. Schwartz, a lecturer in math and science at California State University-Dominguez Hills in Carson.

CLAS Roots

Some observers chart the beginning of the latest furor over math in California to criticism over the now-defunct California Learning Assessment System exam. The system, known as clas, was meant to be an innovative measure of critical thinking and problem-solving. Reformers say the CLAS test in math reflected the now troubled 1992 framework.

But some parents and conservative groups charged that the test wasn't valid and that it asked prying questions about students. In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill reauthorizing CLAS and torpedoed the program. ("Fate of Calif. Testing Unclear After Wilson's Veto," Oct. 5, 1994, and "Model Exam in Calif. Is Target of New Attacks," May 4, 1994.)

Since then, there has been one political entanglement after another. In 1995, amid criticism over the math framework and low math scores compared with those of other states, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin convened a task force to turn achievement around. The task force called for a "balance" of basic skills, conceptual understanding, and problem-solving.

Then, after the state school board decided to rewrite the math framework, assembling a framework committee became a flashpoint. Last fall, the state board rejected the slate of names provided by the state curriculum commission and accepted a substitute list offered by board member Janet Nicholas--a list perceived as packed with anti-reformers.

The resulting firestorm found the state math teachers' council circulating a petition of protest that drew 3,000 signatures from teachers, parents, and community members in less than a month. In December, the board added three members perceived as pro-reform.

But as last month's framework-committee meeting showed, the road has not been much smoother since then. One parent member, who has been highly critical of the 1992 framework, turned in a 10-page list of more than 300 specific types of tasks children should know how to do.

A teacher member submitted a derisive cartoon showing a tumbledown shack labeled the "'92 Framework." Standing in front of the shack, a man with a briefcase tells another man: "The officials say you may not tear it down. ... You may only remodel!"

Still others on the panel urged that students gain conceptual understanding as well as basic skills.

Meanwhile, California's disappointing test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to fuel criticism of the framework. In the 1996 round of testing released two weeks ago, California's 4th and 8th grade scores barely moved since 1992. The 4th grade score places California nearly last among the states, and the 8th grade score ranks it in the bottom quarter. ("Students Post Higher NAEP Math Scores," March 5, 1997.)

Ms. DeArmond and others, however, say that critics haven't given the reforms enough time. The first year in which classroom materials would have reflected the 1992 framework was 1995, they said.

"It's really hard to judge and say it's not working, because it hasn't even become a reality," Patricia Montgomery, a framework-committee member and elementary teacher, told her colleagues on the panel last month.

"The concern here is ... that the group put together for this framework will not recognize the fact that there is a middle ground that we need to be striving for," said Mr. Price, the former nctm president, who is a professor of math education at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona.

Not everyone is chagrined over the discord, however. Taking into account varied opinions about curriculum is necessary to make progress, said Wayne Harvey, the director of the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Technology at the Education Development Center and an organizer of the math conference held in Washington.

It may mean taking two steps in one direction and one in another in that state, Mr. Harvey said, but the cacophony can't be dismissed. "It's a sort of demonstration of what might be brewing elsewhere."

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