'Rain Forest' Algebra Course Teaches Everything but Algebra

I AM a college professor who has algebra homework every night. My teenage daughter is studying algebra using a book that includes Maya Angelou's poetry, pictures of President Clinton, and lectures on what environmental sinners we are.

It has photos of students with names such as Tatuk and Esteban, who offer my daughter thoughts on life. It includes icons for fine arts, industry, and science. The book is full of color pictures and graphics. About the only things you can't find are explanations about how algebra is done and actual algebra problems.

Welcome to rain-forest math. My daughter is studying algebra under a newly adopted, district-wide curriculum that includes an integrative textbook and cooperative/group learning. Students measure their wing spans for a class period. They toss coins for another class period just to be certain we aren't lying to them about probability. For all I know, they're joining hands and singing "Kum By Yah."

What's certain is they are not learning algebra. Though my daughter has an "A" in beginning Algebra, she has yet to grasp the idea that what you do to one side of the equation, you must do to the other.

When I spoke to her teacher about the book and how class time was being used, she responded: "We don't plug and chug anymore. We're teaching them to think." It's odd, however, that the students are never required to show their work on homework papers or tests. How do we know what they're thinking if all we're checking is answers, I asked. The teacher assured me that five years from now these kids would be great in math.

I did some research and found an integrative, group-learning math experiment in California. Now in its fifth year, the program's first graduates are in college. Not surprisingly, they can't even pass remedial math at that level.

Parental concern

Other parents and I joined forces and went one-by-one to the school to discuss our concerns. First, we sent in an engineer. She questioned the use of application problems before the students have been taught the basics. Our engineer mother was told that she did not understand the education process or what was needed in the business world.

We sent in a lawyer. He returned having been told that universities had guided and approved the curriculum and textbook. Next it was my turn. I was given the worst blow of all. "You may have to face the fact, Mrs. Jennings, that your child may not get algebra." I had tried to explain that my daughter is studying Captain Nemo and South American languages, but can't find rise over run explained anywhere.

I made an offer to the assistant principal and the head of the math department: Give the students a standard algebra test covering the areas mentioned in the book so far; if they do well, I'll go away. "We don't do that," they sniffed. They directed me to the central administration. I tried a friend on the school board. She offered the "she may never get algebra" defense of the curriculum but set up a meeting with district officials. I met with assistant superintendents in charge of instruction, curriculum, and math.

I took in pages from the book. Find the problems, I challenged them. I even took along another mother. Find an explanation of order of operations, she said. We asked about showing work. I mentioned the California program. Two of the three told me, "You may just have to face the fact that your daughter won't get algebra."

My child, and thousands of others, are being sacrificed on the altar of theory. I am told of studies that confirm this instructional approach works, but no copies of the studies have been forthcoming.

'Plug and chug' abandoned

In addition to the nontraditional textbooks, our children use calculators. "Plug and chug" has been abandoned in the name of application and thinking. But one can't apply algebra until patterns are clear. One can't solve a word problem unless the relationships of variables are clear. Plug and chug is discipline and practice. We once believed success required these.

I guess I just don't see studying the words to a Beatles song as a way of learning algebra. I guess I will just accept the fact that my daughter will never get algebra. Oh, I think she could learn algebra. She just won't be given the chance. Rain- forest math, on the other hand, is available daily in a rainbow of colors.

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