Changing America's path to reform

It may be a sign of the future, tucked inside an inner-city New Jersey classroom.

US and Japanese educators and researchers ring the walls as a class homes in on pi. What they're after: signs that a lesson orchestrated to a Japanese score is getting through to kids.

Math is moving to the top of the American educational agenda. Like School 2 in Paterson, N.J., thousands of schools around the United States are testing new approaches, spurred by a sense of urgency that American children are not keeping pace in a crucial area. The common goal: to set all students on paths that will open doors in a high-tech age.

But how to do that is controversial. US teachers have developed a thick skin against frequent reforms that encourage wild swings or suggest a lost golden age of learning. They're not helped in their day-to-day efforts by a culture which prizes reading far above math in early grades, and where kids can define "nerd" well before they learn to multiply.

If there's any agreement, it may be that Americans need a lesson in a more balanced approach to reform - one that doesn't emphasize one key elementat the expense of another.

"Math education is a stool that needs three legs," says Richard Askey, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Good problems, technical skill, and conceptual understanding are all necessary. If even one of these legs is weak, you don't have a good program."

By Professor Askey's estimate, the last time the US instituted a reform in math that strengthened all three "legs" was 1923. All of the various reforms in the years since, he insists, "emphasize one leg or at the most two, but never all three."

American students generally trail their foreign counterparts in math achievement.

But Glenda Lappan, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, notes that some tests given to US students show that improvement has been made since 1990.

"The trajectory is right," she says. "Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not."

Certainly some math programs have have been able to demonstrate practices that lift student achievement. The Statewide Systemic Initiative under way in Puerto Rico, and the efforts of Project SEED (see related stories, pages 15 and 21) are success stories.

But while they represent exemplary efforts, they also highlight a key challenge: a piecemeal approach to math education that may never add up to any kind of meaningful nationwide reform.

They're also clouded by vocal skirmishes between advocates of stressing basic skills and those who support focusing more heavily on conceptual understanding.

James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA and co-author of "The Teaching Gap" (Free Press), says the standards movement - the insistence on clear guidelines that outline what children should know at each grade level - is having a positive effect.

"At least it gets us to sharpen our goals and to see where we're falling apart," he says.

But overall, Professor Stigler says he sees little positive movement, because most proposed math reforms remain too superficial and don't come close to the dramatic overhaul needed to effect real change.

"People are upset, but the solutions they come up with are the same old ones - smaller class sizes, merit pay, computers in classrooms - that fit into our cultural script," he says. "They don't change the way we teach and they don't touch the fundamental problem."

As she watches the class in Paterson, Betsy Blume, curriculum coordinator for the Hebrew Academy of Morris County, N.J., says she likes the new ideas, but is frustrated that change is often so hard to implement.

Many teachers, Ms. Blume points out, would be highly resistant to some of the methods on display in the class - even though many of them, such as a more hands-on approach, are popular not only among educators in Japan but among US math reformers as well.

But looking at the group assembled to study the Paterson program, she is intrigued.

A high-tech economy has pushed math well beyond an area of interest only to "geeks." Perhaps that intense focus on the topic will be the key to learning to teach math to American children in a way that will keep them on par with the best around the globe. Maybe it also will help prompt a process of more-coherent reform that avoids lurching from one extreme to the other.

"The real question," says James Hiebert, professor of education at the University of Delaware, "is whether we have the patience and fortitude in the US to begin what will be a long-term process, and to sustain it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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