Most US Math Instruction Lacks Depth

With regard to "Rebel Parents See 'New-New Math' As a Big Minus" (July 2): I want to emphasize that we should not be trying to "go back" to a system of rote instruction of basic algorithms that has been, and still is, ineffective for a majority of students. The position of our children in a global economy requires that they attain understanding of an ever-expanding range of mathematical concepts, skills, and problem-solving.

Following are some issues addressed in the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) with regard to mathematics education:

1) Without a national curriculum in place, US curricula are driven by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards, state frameworks, district and school standards, textbooks, and standardized tests. Teachers attempt to answer to these diverse demands, but pay even more attention to parents. No cohesive vision guides educators.

2) Textbook publishers attempt to incorporate every new movement and set of standards in order to be marketable to different states with different expectations. But they rarely drop anything. The continually augmented curriculum presented by most textbooks is absolutely impossible to teach in one year, yet teachers attempt it!

3) "Spiraling" means a topic is presented briefly in one year with the idea that it will be deepened the next. So many topics are introduced in this way that none are treated with the depth and in the length of time it would take for them to be fully understood.

When the topic reappears in future grades, it is not deepened, but taught again from the beginning, again with no time to be treated fully. Topics stay in our curriculum far longer than in countries more successful in mathematics. By eighth grade, US students are expected to cover around 35 topics; in other countries, only six or eight. Topics considered by most to be the "basics" stay in our curriculum as the major component for five, six, or seven years.

4) We focus on computation as the basic skill, while other countries include algebra and geometry much earlier and more fully.

It is a fallacy that once standards are published, they are immediately in place. The TIMSS showed that although most teachers are familiar with reform documents such as the NCTM standards and believe they are incorporating them, US math classrooms are remarkably uniform in the delivery of low-level math lessons - practically unchanged over decades, despite one call to action after another.

In the few classrooms where teachers have created an active climate of thinking, reasoning, understanding, and basic skills for all students - and where their efforts to implement to NCTM standards have been supported by time, training, and collaboration with peers over three to five years or more - parents and students are pleased with the results. In those settings, more students succeed, and even standardized test scores bear out the effectiveness of the programs.

Tamara Evans

Healdsburg, Calif.

Children are not 'owned'

The concept that parents "own" their children, stated by California Assemblyman George R. House Jr. in his letter "Parents rights in the schools" (July 10) is deeply troubling to me.

As a longtime homeschooling parent, I follow the parental rights issue with great interest. I always hear in the word "rights" (rather than "responsibilities") the implication that parents are asserting a right to do anything they want to a child. Proponents assure me that is not the intention - rather, they intend to assert their rights in relation to the government. But then Mr. House employs the word "own." Children are not property but are entrusted to their parents' care by the very Creator House mentions. Please let's not focus on rights of ownership, but rather on the best interests of the child.

Nicky Hardenbergh

Manchester, Mass.

* Your letters are welcome. Letters should be mailed to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, faxed to 617-450-2317, or e-mailed (200 words maximum) to oped@csps.com.

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