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'New-New' Math Sparks Old Battle

Yet another approach to teaching math in California incurs the wrath of parents concerned about basics

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1996


It's math time at the Sherman Oaks Dixie Canyon Avenue Elementary School. But instead of pulling out paper and pencils, the mixed class of kindergartners and first-graders snuggles up on the reading rug as teacher Marlene McLemore props up a large book called "Tom Fox and the Apple Pie."

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As she narrates Tom's pursuit of the pie, Ms. McLemore throws out an occasional question. "Tom has 13 brothers and sisters. Why would he need 16 pieces of pie?" An attentive kindergartner pipes up, "because he has a mom and dad!"

Afterward, the children break into small groups to construct and share an apple pie made up of small tiles.

Welcome to what's been dubbed California's "new-new" math curriculum. Literature-based, hands on, with emphasis on "real world" applications, the curriculum is a reflection of the latest thinking in math education. And it's as controversial today as was the new math of the 1960s and '70s. In California, as well as many other states where math curricula are being revised, concerned parents are facing off with state boards of education over the new textbooks.

Spurred by sinking test scores and new teaching standards issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989, schools around the country have been updating the way they teach math. The Golden State issued a new math "framework" in 1992, which led to new textbooks in 1994. The refurbished curriculum, designed to give students greater skills in conceptual thinking and problem solving, began appearing in classrooms last September.

But its arrival has sparked a battle over the proper balance between teaching strong critical-thinking skills and adequate preparation in basic computation. And the outcome, given California's clout in the textbook market, has national implications for how the next generation will learn its numbers.

"Every child can and should learn math," says Jack Price of the NCTM, acknowledging the importance of computational skills. But, he emphasizes, such ability must go hand-in-hand with higher-level math skills, like thinking and reasoning, because "these kids are going to live in a different world than their parents."

Bob Hamada, mathematics coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District also touts the virtues of the new approach. "[It] is not menu-driven, with the teachers telling students what to do," he explains. "It has lots of student thinking and investigation, lots of participation."

But many districts, gun-shy after the bitter battles over whole-language versus phonics that erupted nearly a decade ago when the state revised its language curriculum, have been slow to adopt the curriculum. Relatively few of California's nearly 1,000 school districts have implemented it entirely. Those that have often have found their efforts rewarded with controversy.

In San Diego, for example, one of the few cities that has adopted the math texts district-wide, a vocal and well-organized group of parents is actively fighting the new method.

Michael McKeown, a San Diego parent and scientist at the world-renowned Salk Institute in La Jolla, says the curriculum has serious flaws. "It's critically weak in basic skills training," he says, adding that the textbooks cover less material in less depth than either traditional or other alternative math approaches.

The consequences of such gaps can be serious. "Students who are not well-prepared in the basics can't succeed in math later on," Mr. McKeown asserts.

McKeown is co-founder of "Mathematically Correct," a loose coalition of some 200 parents concerned about the new-new math finding its way into schools nationwide. The group has a Web page on the Internet and has communicated with concerned parents as far away as England and Australia. "Many of us are scientists and engineers," McKeown points out. "We know what kind of math you need in the real world. This isn't it."

But Vance Mills, math supervisor with the San Diego Unified School District says the new approach is exactly what students need. "When I taught math, it was all isolated skills. Students didn't have any idea how to apply them."