Calif. Education Officials Approve Back-to-Basics Standards in Math

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Weeks after the California school board approved the state's first-ever K-12 math standards, emotions are still running high on both sides of the issue.

The board's decision to depart from a recommended set of standards and emphasize basic skills is polarizing opinions now, but it may take years before it's clear what impact the voluntary goals will have on curricula, tests, and textbooks.

It could be considerable. New state assessments are to be written to align with the standards. And later this year, a panel will recommend to the state board what California's mathematics framework--the curricular meat on the skeleton of benchmarks--should look like. Moreover, the board's action could imperil a lucrative federal funding source.

The framework will likely influence textbook publishers, who must pay attention to the huge California market. Right now, in draft form, the framework jibes with the board's decision to have the standards emphasize computational skills over problem-solving, and precise answers instead of estimated ones. Although the next state adoption of math textbooks is proposed for 2001, the process for both policymakers and publishers gets under way a few years in advance.

Political winds could shift before then. Two-term Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is prohibited from running again, so state voters will pick a new governor this year. All of the state board's members are appointed by the governor, and two of the 11 seats come open in 1999. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, also faces re-election this year.

Taken to Task

Meanwhile, boosters and critics weighed in on the new standards, which the board approved unanimously Dec. 11. Advocates argue the standards are both rigorous and flexible enough to allow different approaches to teaching the subject. But naysayers, who include the state superintendent, say the document doesn't focus enough on conceptual understanding. ("Calif. Officials Give Tentative Approval To Math Standards With Basics Bent," Dec. 10, 1997.)

In an interview last week, Ms. Eastin said she was disappointed by what she called "a very mediocre set of standards." She said that the K-7 standards are not rigorous enough and that the benchmarks for grades 8-12 go beyond the scope of standards to include specific functions and theorems students must know.

Some of the 8-12 standards are "unbelievably high," Ms. Eastin contended. "No high school in America, just about," she said, "is expecting kids to know" some material she termed college-level, such as Fermat's last theorem.

In addition to members of the state Senate and faculty leaders from California's public university systems who blasted the board's decision, the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that subsidizes several urban school reform efforts in the state, also criticized the standards.

In a letter written Dec. 11--after the board's vote on K-7 academic standards but before its action on the 8-12 goals--Luther S. Williams, the assistant director for education and human resources at the NSF, told board President Yvonne Larsen: "The board action is, charitably, shortsighted and detrimental to the long-term mathematical literacy of children in California."

The NSF oversees more than $50 million in awards to six school districts in the state. Mr. Williams hinted that continued or new foundation funding for reforms could be in jeopardy for those that follow the standards.

"You must surely understand that the foundation cannot support individual school systems that embark on a course that substitutes computational proficiencies for a commitment to deep, balanced, mathematical learning," he wrote.

No 'Rubber Stamp'

The board's action on standards also caused one member to resign from the state's academic-standards commission, which had recommended math standards only to see state board members change them.

But E.D. Hirsch Jr., an education professor at the University of Virginia and a champion of the back-to-basics approach, applauded the standards in a statement provided by the state board: "The standards you have set are consistent with what the most reliable scientific research tells us about the soundest principles to follow in teaching early math."

Because the standards are voluntary, districts may stick with ones they already have. School districts "are not going to rubber-stamp" the standards, predicted Margaret DeArmond, the immediate past president of the California Mathematics Council, which represents math teachers.

Instead, she said, district officials will have to decide which standards to use--the state board's, the commission's, or their own.

Ms. Eastin said she would urge districts to adopt the "higher standards" written by the commission.

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