Academics Urge Riley To Reconsider Math Endorsements

By Debra Viadero — November 24, 1999 3 min read
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Nearly 200 mathematicians, physicists, and other scholars urged U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley last week to withdraw his department’s seal of approval from math programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Venturing deep into the “math wars” for the first time, federal officials last month designated 10 mathematics programs as either “exemplary” or “promising” based on a two-year review of their effectiveness. (“Ed. Dept. To Release List of Recommended Math Programs,” Oct. 6, 1999.) But the academics, in a signed letter published as a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post Nov. 18, said the government had acted too hastily.

Some of the programs, they asserted, neglect to teach skills as basic as multiplying two-digit numbers or dividing fractions.

“How can anybody call that exemplary?” said David Klein, a mathematics professor at California State University—Northridge and one of five co-authors of the letter. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The 192 scholars and educators joining Mr. Klein included four Nobel laureates, Arizona’s state schools superintendent, a handful of prominent education researchers, and two recipients of the Fields Medal, the top honor for mathematicians. The newspaper ad, costing around $67,000, was paid for by the Packard Humanities Institute, a foundation based in Los Altos, Calif.

‘Prevailing Standards’

The high-profile plea, however, is not expected to move the U.S. Department of Education to back down from its endorsements, according to Linda P. Rosen, the department’s top math education adviser. “I don’t know how closely the signers of the letters looked at the materials,” she said. “But I do know the process the expert panel went through, and what was clear was that students who were using these materials were showing higher achievement.”

At issue in the debate are fundamental disagreements over the best way to teach math. All the programs on the Education Department’s list reflect national standards for teaching the subject that were written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 10 years ago. Those guidelines, which are being revised, emphasize a more integrated, hands-on approach to learning math than students get in traditional classes.

“They’re the prevailing standards in the country, so we thought that would make sense,” Mr. Riley said last week of the review, which was ordered by Congress nearly five years ago.

But the standards have come under heavy attack in recent years with critics contending that programs based on them are short on basic math skills and heavy on calculator use, among other problems. Parents in Plano, Texas, even went to federal court in August to protest that district’s use of the Connected Mathematics program, one of the “exemplary” programs named by the department.

“This only lowers the standards for math education,” charged Betty Tsang, a physicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a co-author of the letter. She said she became familiar with Connected Mathematics, a program created at her own university, through her daughters’ school. “What it does is teach to the lowest common denominator,” she said.

Membership Criticized

The scholars also complained that department panels appointed to review the math programs lacked “active research mathematicians.’' At least two of the 17 experts on the final review panel were university-based mathematicians. But most of the field reviewers who took a first pass at the programs were teachers.

“It’s a shame when mathematicians are criticizing other mathematicians,” said Ann Watkins, who is one herself as well as an original architect of the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, another program on the “exemplary” list.

“When I look at these programs,” said Eric Robinson, an associate professor of mathematics at Ithaca College in New York, “what I see trying to be done goes way beyond arithmetic. Mathematics is also about thinking.”

But Hung-His Wu, another co-author of the letter, said he was driven to write and publish the message out of a “sense of duty.”

“If something is declared exemplary, there is a lot of pressure on people who do not really know math to use it, and, if we know that is not the case, we should stand up and say so,” said Mr. Wu, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Education Department plans to review math curricula again next year. Mr. Riley said the next panel would reassess the status of math standards before deciding on its criteria for success.

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