Rebel Parents See 'New-New Math' As a Big Minus

Marianne Jennings spent last summer teaching her teenage daughter algebra. This year they're working on geometry.

Mrs. Jennings commandeered Sarah's math education when she realized that, despite all A's in algebra, her daughter didn't know a fundamental rule - what you do to one side of the equation, you must do to the other.

A peek at Sarah's algebra textbook may explain why. There's poetry by Maya Angelou and photos of Bill Clinton, but equations don't appear until Page 165.

This textbook and dozens like it are the result of the latest makeover of America's math curriculum. Now a growing number of parents are rebelling against the "new-new math" of the '90s. Like Jennings, they're insisting that their children learn basic skills - and they're banding together to press schools to restore traditional math courses.

Today's math curriculum, like the new math of the 1960s and '70s, is controversial. It emphasizes real-world problems and integration of math concepts (see box below). But some parents learn their kids can't multiply without a calculator and spend more time writing about math than doing it.

In Tempe, Ariz., Jennings and other parents persuaded school officials to offer a traditional Algebra I course for eighth-graders this past school year. Next year, local high schools are returning to traditional textbooks for Algebra II.

"The battle is going on in school boards everywhere," says Wayne Bishop, a mathematics professor at California State University in Los Angeles.

The revolt is particularly strong in California, which is furthest along in adopting the new approach to math.

In Escondido, Calif., Larry Gipson founded Parents for Math Choice and lobbied the school district to offer a traditional algebra course in addition to the "integrated" math program. The group succeeded, and "parents and kids have basically voted with their feet," Mr. Gipson says. "Now 65 to 75 percent of the kids ... are back in traditional math."

Gipson has been appointed to a committee developing math standards for Grades K-8 in Escondido. He and several other California parents set up a Web site to share information about math reforms nationwide. ( homepages/mathman/index.htm)

"We've used a lot of math to get where we are and continue to use a relatively large amount of math to do the jobs we do," says parent Mike McKeown, a molecular biologist at the Salk Institute. "This was from a perspective of being very aware of the kind of math that gets used and is important."

Rebellion by parents has accomplished more than years of pleas from mathematicians who oppose the reforms, says Professor Bishop. "They've been amazingly successful at calling attention to the problem."

Current changes in math education grew in large part out of the 1989 standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Linda Rosen, NCTM executive director, attributes the uproar to "misunderstanding and miscommunication."

Perhaps some educators "overinterpreted what these math standards are all about," she suggests. "In talking about other parts of mathematics that students should be exposed to, we never said you have to take away some of the basics." Ms. Rosen says the curriculum has produced "as many success stories as [critics] have complaints."

But parents are not alone in their concerns. Even some veteran math teachers, in the privacy of their classrooms, are resorting to tried-and-true methods.

"I used a set of books that went back 12 to 15 years," says Betty Raskoff Kazmin, who recently retired as a math teacher in Los Angeles. "The books were so bedraggled, the kids used to laugh at them."

But at least the texts supplied basic skills students need, she says. "I've seen students in algebra classes that have no clue how to attack an equation.... All they know is that if they need to multiply, they'd better have a calculator handy."

Many parents have no idea what their kids are missing, Ms. Kazmin says. "Parents usually can tell if their kids can read, write, or spell. But most ... don't know what math their kids should be doing."

Even if parents do believe something is wrong with math education, many simply work out solutions for their own kids.

"Parents who have either the academic or financial wherewithal to tutor their children at home, hire them a private tutor, or put them a private school, are doing that," McKeown says.

"But you ... feel guilty about the consequences for others," adds Jennings. "It's creating a generation of math illiterates."

Both sides agree a balanced approach is needed. "We're not looking for a return to the traditional math of 30 years ago," Gipson says. Students need both computation skills and the ability to understand math concepts and solve problems, he says.

Adding Up New Math Standards

'New-new math' grew out of 1989 standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathemathics. It includes:

* Use of calculators

* Focus on real-world problems

* Hands-on, project-oriented approach

* Group work and discussion of math concepts

* Integration of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry

* Guess-and-check approach in which students estimate answers and check accuracy with calculators

* Use of objects, such as small tiles and popsicle sticks, in lower grades

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