Published Online:

Math Showdown Looms Over Standards in Calif.

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Conflicting philosophies and dueling documents could lead to a showdown over how to teach math to 5.6 million schoolchildren, as the California school board begins reviewing proposals for the state's first-ever content standards.

In a state that is often the nation's bellwether on education issues, the battle between supporters of new methods of math instruction and advocates of a more traditional approach is expected to be the most contentious and closely watched as the state moves toward adopting standards in core academic subjects.

The draft standards--broad outlines for what students should know written by a special state commission--call for students to gain a more conceptual understanding of the subject. The first draft from a separate state panel charged with creating the more specific frameworks that guide math instruction emphasizes basic computational skills, however.

The effort to reconcile the two approaches is expected to dominate the next stage of the process. The state school board was scheduled to meet this week to discuss the standards proposals. It must approve standards in mathematics and language arts by Jan. 1, and then will turn to making the frameworks, which describe the curriculum in greater detail, reflect those standards. Other subjects--history and science--will come next year.

The proposals for language arts have been, for the most part, accepted without contention. "But there is a lot of dialogue in the state of California, if not the nation and world, about mathematics," said Yvonne W. Larsen, the state board's chairwoman. "It's a pretty hot topic."

The commission charged with creating the standards for the four subjects includes educators, scholars, and business and civic leaders. It is seeking standards that are both rigorous and reachable for all students, said Ellen F. Wright, an education consultant who is the panel's chairwoman.

"Commissioners from all different backgrounds and different educational experiences came together and fought hard to discard the politics and stick to the issues," she said. "We came up with standards that are among the highest in the world."

Competing Visions

Some state board members, including Ms. Larsen, who praised the work of the standards commission, said they were leaning toward making the math standards reflect a more traditional organization of the discipline. That view, some in the state are predicting, could win out in the final revisions.

But officials of many of the state's education associations have widely applauded the math-standards proposal in its current form.

Yvonne W. Larsen

"We are definitely moving in the right direction. ... There are basic skills embedded throughout the standards, but there is also a nice emphasis on problem-solving," said Margaret DeArmond, the president of the California Mathematics Council, which represents math teachers. "I hope that the state board adopts these very high standards so that we can start to find ways to implement them locally."

The math standards were modeled after those of Japan and Singapore, according to officials on the standards commission. Those were the highest-performing countries on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, released in fall 1996. U.S. students scored in the middle of the pack out of 41 participating nations.

William H. Schmidt, a national research coordinator for TIMSS and a consultant to the California commission, said the final draft improved upon earlier versions of the standards.

"The fact that [the standards for] 8th grade changed from an algebra class to a mathematics class incorporating algebra and geometry is very consistent with what most other countries in TIMSS do," Mr. Schmidt wrote in a September letter to the commission.

But others disagree.

Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who was one of the dissenting voices on the commission, believes the standards aren't rigorous enough.

He also objects to the introduction of geometry in the 8th grade, noting that many teachers at that level are not trained in the subject, and the integration of Algebra 1, geometry, and Algebra 2 throughout the high school grades.

"The basic problem is that they spread all this material all over hill and dale," Mr. Evers said. "Overall, I don't think that if you have requirements, you should experiment with a whole state population of children. You should have only a proven, research-based curriculum."

Mr. Evers has proposed his own set of standards that prescribe a traditional sequence of algebra and geometry.

His alternative document won the endorsement of Mathematically Correct, a grassroots citizens' organization that advocates traditional math instruction. The group objects to the integrated approach taken by the commission's draft, saying there is little research to back it up.

"It's not that I don't think the integrated curriculum isn't interesting and something that should be explored," said Martha Schwartz, a founder of the San Diego, Calif.-based organization. "But it's still in the experimental stage."

Careful Steps

The state board, Ms. Larsen said, will proceed carefully, wary of making a decision that will bear the brunt of the blame should the standards fail to raise achievement.

"We don't want whatever we do to be the 'California experiment,'" the chairwoman said. Critics of the draft standards have charged that endorsing the integration of math subjects would be reminiscent of the state's widely criticized move away from phonics toward a literature-based, or "whole language," reading program a decade ago.

But the state superintendent, Delaine Eastin, and other backers of the draft standards point to the support the document received when the commission approved it last summer. The vote by the 21-member panel was 15-2 to adopt the draft, with two abstentions and two members absent. The frameworks committee members were deeply divided, but approved their draft 13-9.

"There was strong consensus on the standards," Doug Stone, Ms. Eastin's spokesman, said last week. He said it makes sense for the state board to adopt follow the philosophical approach favored by the standards commission, "then align the frameworks to them."

The commission, appointed last year by Gov. Pete Wilson, Ms. Eastin, and the legislature, must come up with similar recommendations in history and science by next summer.

Once approved, the standards in all four subjects will provide the basis for realignment of the respective frameworks, the development of a state testing system, and accountability measures for individual districts and schools.

The high-stakes assessment system is expected to put some muscle behind the voluntary standards and ensure that all 1,000 districts adopt them or devise their own rigorous guidelines.

The math recommendations, however, have been complicated by a somewhat illogical process that has resulted in the simultaneous development of standards and frameworks. The two must eventually be aligned but remain, at this point, at odds in their approach.

The state, which has been a national leader in the development of curriculum frameworks over the past decade, appointed the math-frameworks committee to review the existing guidelines before the standards commission convened. The proposals for revising the frameworks have been sent to districts for review and comment.

Revision of the state's language arts framework has been halted until the standards in that subject area are approved. Frameworks in history and social sciences were revised earlier this year.

Smoother Sailing

The draft for the language arts standards has been a much smoother part of the process. The standards commission, which approved the document 18-0, has apparently struck a balance between phonics-based instruction, which emphasizes learning the sounds that make up words before reading sentences, and whole-language approaches.

"The standards are rigorous and comprehensive," said Donald A. Mayfield, the policy chairman for the California Association of Teachers of English and a secondary-language-arts coordinator for the San Diego County schools. "The standards speak to a balanced curriculum. It says [use] phonics when necessary and good literature for all, and also emphasizes writing and speaking."

The document also recommends that students read numerous books, newspapers, and magazines outside the classroom. It prescribes that middle school students read a million words each year in addition to what they read in school and that high school students read 2 million. The standards have won praise from a variety of educators and have yet to rekindle the long-running debate over reading instruction.

Regardless of what California's final standards in the various subjects look like, educators and policymakers agree that the exercise will have been fruitless if lawmakers fail to provide the money to implement them. Without state support for curriculum development, teacher training, and assistance for low-performing students, they say, many districts won't be able to hold their students to the standards.

"The standards are incredibly rigorous. We need to sit back and look at the road map for implementation," said Holly Colvin, an assistant executive director with the California School Boards Association. "The major [challenge] will be to make sure teachers in the classroom have the training to teach the standards."

Web Only

Web Resources
You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories