Does The New Math Add Up?

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Math education experts nationwide have hailed California's efforts to reshape the way its schools teach mathematics as a breakthrough in the push for higher standards. But the changes aren't going over too well with some of the people who might be expected to welcome them the most: parents.

In the past year, well-educated parents in at least nine communities around the state have formed grass-roots organizations to fight the program. They charge that with its emphasis on higher-level thinking, California has abandoned the basics. Their immediate objective is to halt the use of textbooks based on the latest version of the state mathematics frameworks, adopted in 1992.

The parents' concerns echo some of the recommendations made last fall by a task force appointed by state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin. The panel called for more basic-skills instruction but stopped short of recommending that the state abandon the frameworks' emphasis on higher-level thinking.

The state legislature passed a bill last year that required future state frameworks and instructional materials to stress, among other things, basic computational skills and testing of those skills. The process of adopting new state frameworks is scheduled to begin this fall.

Leaders of the grass-roots groups support the state-level efforts to emphasize the basics but believe that process is too slow. "Even if they make changes, we are looking to sometime in the next century before the consequences take shape,'' says Paul Clopton, a leader of a San Diego parents' group.

In the past year, publishing companies have begun issuing the first round of textbooks based on the California frameworks, which in turn rely heavily on the standards adopted in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The state frameworks, like the national standards, place greater emphasis on conceptual understanding, problem solving, and communicating about mathematical ideas.

Last spring, parents in Palo Alto formed a group called Honest Open Logical Debate to oppose a middle school math curriculum based on the frameworks. Since then, groups have sprung up in San Diego, Santa Barbara, and at least seven other communities. Most of the parents making the noise are middle-class or affluent professionals, and they use e-mail and the Internet as tools in their highly organized campaign.

Though the complaints have been loudest in California, the debate over math standards isn't limited to the West coast. "It may have started there a little earlier, and the volume may be a little higher, but it is popping up everywhere,'' says Glenn Kleiman, a senior scientist at the Education Development Center, an educational research organization based in Newton, Mass. Similar battles, he says, are being fought in other states, such as Iowa and Texas. Like their counterparts elsewhere, parents in California believe their state's frameworks do not set clear goals and do not emphasize the need to learn and practice essential mathematical skills.

For Clopton, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego, it all began one evening last fall as he watched his 7th grade daughter struggle with her homework. Her Algebra I class was using a new text grounded in the principles of the state frameworks. Although the girl was getting an A in the class, she made many simple errors, Clopton says. Not long after that, he, Mike McKeown, an engineer at the Salk Institute, and several other parents founded a group called Mathematically Correct and began lobbying the San Diego schools to abandon the program.

When they learned that the district was preparing to adopt frameworks-based textbooks for the rest of the K-8 math curriculum, they launched a petition drive that netted about 200 signatures. The school board went on to approve the frameworks-based textbooks anyway.

What the parents' groups want are more specific grade-level standards. "A real standard is that a student should be able to walk four miles in an hour,'' says McKeown. "A standard with no teeth is that a student should be able to walk far and fast.''

Supporters of the frameworks argue that the standards-based approach is still in the early stages. They also contend that an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that the opposition groups are clinging to traditional approaches that have failed many children. "The idea that you wouldn't want to teach kids to use their knowledge so they can apply it is just nuts,'' says Andy Porter, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There is a research base to show we are better off with a standards-based approach.''

Both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and its California chapter have launched a campaign to build support for the frameworks. "[Critics] suggest that we have abandoned the basics, and that is simply not true,'' says Linda Rosen, executive director of the Reston, Va.-based NCTM. "We want to continue the basics as we know them--to ensure students can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and do it without using a calculator. But we also want to introduce the basics of today.''

--Meg Sommerfeld

Vol. 07, Issue 09, Page 1-24

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