If this is math, then we're at war
OKEMOS, MICH. — Not long ago, Christopher Smith realized his daughter was frustrated over math. He wondered if his sixth-grader "just wasn't too good" at it.
But on a hunch, the university professor asked the principal at the Kinawa Middle School in Okemos, Mich., for standardized test results for the entire sixth grade.
And then it hit him: Children in one of the state's most affluent districts were floundering when it came to math computation.
"It just blew me away," Mr. Smith says. "What it said to me is: 'It isn't my daughter - there's something systemic that's leading to low scores.' "
Overnight, Smith became a Paul Revere parent. Scores of adults are on his regular e-mail list about "bad math" in local schools. He passes out his findings at any opportunity.
A grass-roots rebellion is building among parents from Texas to Virginia, upset that their children are scoring poorly on national tests and grabbing a calculator for even simple problems. They're worried children will be shut out of higher-level math courses and related careers. And they lay the blame squarely with a spate of new math programs now being adopted by schools nationwide.
Both on the Web and in testimony before Congress, the pejorative patter of angry parents lashes out at "rainforest math" and "MTV math." Some refer to "new-new math," a twist on the 1960s "new math" that was heavy on concepts and low on computation, and eventually rejected. While there is some evidence the rebellion crosses class lines, the most intense battles are in districts with affluent, well-educated parents who track school work closely.
"Parents are becoming savvy about the programs that just aren't cutting it," says Sheryl Blanchard, an Okemos mother who has been a math tutor for 19 years.
Ironically, some of the programs most loathed by parents were cited as "exemplary" or "promising" last fall by the United States Department of Education. Many of them were designed to be in sync with National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. Typically, they rely heavily on teachers to guide students, and use calculators frequently and as early as first grade. They emphasize exploring solutions to real-life problems in small-group discussions.
The negative responses - backed by a panel of Nobel Prize winners and mathematicians who wrote to the Department of Education to oppose the new designations - are being felt around the country:
*In Plano, Texas, parents whose children were using the "exemplary" Connected Math program questioned sixth-grade assignments like: "Choose a whole number between 10 and 100 that you especially like. In your journal, record your number, explain why you chose that number, list three or four mathematical things about your number, list three or four connections you can make between your number and the world."
Petitions began circulating to remove the program. When that failed, six parents filed suit last August alleging the district is violating their right to direct their children's education.
*In California, which used several of the new programs, there has been a statewide return to "the basics."
Gayle Cloud, president of Citizens United for Education in Riverside, Calif., says the rollback of "constructivist" math that stressed student "discovery" is cause for rejoicing.
"This same trend took away a generation's reading ability," she says. "Then it went after their math skills. If we hadn't stopped it [in California], we might as well have put them in front of a TV and let them suck their thumbs."
*In Fairfax, Va., Mychele Brickner, a Fairfax County Public School Board member for five years, says she used to get a lot of calls about reading. But lately she's been hearing a lot about math. "There seem to be fewer people questioning math, but the people questioning it are very concerned."
*Michigan parents, too, have jumped into the ring. Two of the most acclaimed and controversial new math programs - Connected Mathematics and Core Plus Mathematics - were developed at state universities and dozens of state schools were "pilot" or "field-test" schools.
The new programs were developed in the 1990s with federal funds. The aim: to stop the slide in US student performance on international math tests with a smarter approach to teaching an oft-dreaded subject.
Some parents, of course, have been pleased with the shift. "I think the new math is a good bridge for my son between the basic skills of elementary school and the higher concepts of high school," says Susan Prasad, whose sixth-grader attends Kinawa.
Many school officials and front-line educators are enthusiastic as well, arguing that for the first time, more kids are enjoying and understanding math. Instead of a heavy focus on rote learning and a teacher who plays the role of "sage on the stage," the teacher in newer programs is a "guide on the side." That means students are getting a deeper conceptual understanding of math, they say.
Barbara Hoevel, the principal at Kinawa, is proud that her middle school was an early adopter of one of the new programs, Connected Mathematics, about three years ago. "When I have veteran teachers tell me for the first time that children understand concepts they've never seen children that age understand, then I support them," Ms. Hoevel says.
Ms. Prasad agrees. "My son is so excited about math, and I see him drawing on his math skills and translating them into the real world," she says.
But other parents and educators are skeptical that the chosen methods work - or that there was scientific evidence to support their adoption by the DOE or the local school districts. In Okemos, parents have primarily targeted two new programs: "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space" at the elementary level and "Connected Mathematics" at the middle schools.
"I used to be a math teacher," says Patricia Hagan, mother of three grade-schoolers in Okemos. "My husband and I have done our own research and feel much of what is out there is based on unproven theories. We'd just like to have some unbiased scientific research to back up what's being taught."
A few blocks away at Chippewa Middle School, Principal Thomas Tweedy says his teachers are moving slowly, blending a little of the new material with a lot of the old. "[Connected Math] is too aggressive - there's too much material covered," Mr. Tweedy says. "In our teachers' eyes, this is a step backwards. There can be a happy ending through compromise. We're not there yet."
Many parents most skeptical of such programs are both highly educated and very familiar with math. Man-Yee "Betty" Tsang, a nuclear physicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing where Connected Math was developed, became alarmed after discovering that her daughter's "Investigations" program had no textbook.
(The Investigations Web site describes "a new K-5 curriculum presented through a series of teacher books.... While working as a whole class, individually, in pairs, and in small groups, students express their mathematical thinking through talking, drawing, and writing.")
When her daughter entered sixth grade at Kinawa, she was relieved to find that Connected Math had a text. But she took a closer look after her sixth-grade daughter began struggling.
"My daughter's class was doing polygons," Dr. Tsang says. "But she brought home a coloring of Picasso. I said, 'this is not math homework, this is art,' " Dr. Tsang says.
So she joined more than 200 mathematicians and physicists in signing the open letter last fall opposing the DOE selections - and began tutoring her daughter.
Since criticism in Okemos began in earnest last year, traditional elements - including memorization of multiplication tables - have been tucked back into the Kinawa curriculum. At Okemos High, where Core Plus has taken root - the new program is offered as an option, not a mandate.
An "overwhelming number" of Okemos High students have opted for traditional math, says Principal John Lanzetta. "Many of our parents are engineers, and they have to think hard about whether they want to try something new that might be a fad."
But there's no choice at Okemos elementary or middle schools. And some area parents are beginning to be concerned about those grade levels. In fact, the scores that so upset Smith reflect the math learned the year before at the three primary schools that feed into Kinawa, he says.
Other parents are angered that one elementary school has taken to preparing packets of traditional math for parents to help students cram at home in the weeks right before the state's test, Blanchard says.
"This fine school district has a bunch of parents sending their kids to private tutoring companies - their parking lots are jammed," says Mark Battaglia, parent of a Kinawa eighth-grader.
But Kinawa is not abandoning Connected Math. "Parents become concerned if their child can't do a problem in their head," Principal Hoevel says. "I know the children here are being drilled in their math facts.... But we've added [traditional math] to our instruction because our community has said they value that. We're giving children something math reform doesn't consider important, but that parents do."
But Smith, Tsang, and others bridle at the notion that somehow parents are uninformed. "The teachers basically say the parents are ignorant about teaching math," she says. "Now I tutor her, and if she does well, it's Connected Math that gets the credit. But they never ask how much more work and money parents are putting in."
One key problem with Connected Mathematics and other reform programs, many parents say, is that they are too dependent on the teacher. Being "discovery based," textbooks rarely give examples of how to work out a problem, they complain. Unless the student can recall the teacher's instruction or took great notes, he or she might not have a clue what to do on a homework problem - and neither might a parent, they say.
Conflicting test results add to the confusion of parents and educators. Hoevel says the state's own achievement test shows Kinawa kids improving in math. But Dr. Smith's analysis of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills seems to show the opposite, with math computation scores clearly lower at some schools - where, he and others claim, reform math predominates.
To allay parent concerns, Okemos school officials have brought in outside education consultants. And though scores of upset parents turned out for a recent meeting, it's clear that educators don't have to convince everyone: At least a few parents are vocal cheerleaders for the new math program.
"My daughter seem to be very comfortable with it," says Connie Slivensky, who has a seventh-grader at Kinawa. "She and her [ninth-grade] sister both had it and they're getting A's."
But Mr. Battaglia and his daughter Stephanie aren't convinced.
"I just like to know what to do and get it done," says Stephanie, a Kinawa eighth-grader with a 3.7 grade-point average. "In the new program you're never sure what's going on. I like just figuring out what X equals - and knowing that you have the right answer, and only one answer."
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