Readers weigh in on US math reform

The Learning section received stacks of letters in response to the three-part series on the state of math education and reform in America, which ran May 16, 23, and 30. Here is some of what readers had to say:

Having taught high school math for six years, I would have to agree the most important thing students must have is a basic "grounding." Last year, we discovered our 11th-grade foster child didn't understand decimals or fractions. I asked her what one-tenth of $17 was and she didn't have a clue. She was taking chemistry and Algebra II. We were new to her abilities and were astounded the school let her go into the courses. The math teacher immediately set up a remedial program for her.

Math can be used in creative ways, but I feel much more so when the student is comfortable with the basics.

R. Arthur Bradbury Lee, N.H.

Regarding "If this is math, then we're at war" (May 16) on "experimental" programs: You have taken a small group of disgruntled parents and mathematicians and given them huge amounts of coverage while virtually ignoring the excellent work of professional math educators. This is not balanced reporting. It is propagandizing for the interests of those who appear to be fanatically dedicated to undoing efforts to bring equity to the elitist world of math teaching and learning.

M.P. Goldenberg Ypsilanti, Mich.

In response to "If this is math, then we're at war" (May 16): I was one of the pilot teachers of the Connected Math Project in Jenks, Okla. The one thing I liked about it was that kids who managed to grasp the concepts came out of it more able to communicate mathematically. But overall, I had to work harder than ever to supplement the program with basic concepts required to do any kind of critical thinking.

David Matthews Jenks, Okla.

It's about time someone started looking at math curriculum! Instead of throwing more money at educational problems and demanding more from our overworked teachers, time and money would be better spent overhauling curriculum.

My daughter had difficulty with math, which I had accepted as a "girl thing." However, in sixth grade, her math book presented a problem that caused me to take a closer look at the book. I found problems were offered without giving the child any tools (formulas). The directions were to find a solution, then check it with the answer in the back. If they didn't get it right, they were to try a new approach. This was supposed to make the child think. I thought it cruel to expect a child to come up with a reasonable answer without giving them proper tools. They expected the child to reinvent the wheel.

Kathy McElroy Pueblo, Colo.

Regarding "Calculators in Class: freedom from scratch paper or 'crutch' " (May 23): Has anybody stopped to think that the engineers who built the prototypes that led to today's calculators, as well as the scientists who developed the first integrated circuits, were able to do so without the purported benefits of having calculators available to them? I wonder if they would've been as successful if they hadn't learned "this weird type of division" called long, and in the process, learned to think quantitatively.

Harvey Neilson Manassas, Va.

I read with interest the articles on problems with learning math in the US (May 16). There's one glaring oversight that can be encapsulated with the phrase: "It is the money, stupid!"

In this capitalism-driven society, teachers are seriously underappreciated, and thus underpaid. "What good is math for?" is often the attitude. Why spend time on this stuff of esoteric, deep thinking when we can go out and make money? As long as we ridicule smart, "nerdy" kids in school, rather than encourage them, and have underpaid, underqualified teachers rather than top educators, we'll see no change in the abysmal state of math learning.

Hendrik Monkhorst Physics and chemistry professor University of Florida, Gainesville

The May 16 and May 23 features on math represent a mountain of good reporting. Unfortunately, it's on a molehill of a topic. It's evident that 80 percent of US adults never need or use math above the fifth-grade level. The 20 percent of Americans who really use advanced math, along with those who have traditional American ingenuity and drive, are what keep the US at the forefront. The effort to have most students be proficient in advanced math is a misguided, wasteful expenditure of time and money.

Lawrence Schlack Kalamazoo, Mich.

I was a physics educator for about five years. Much of what has been reported in the Monitor recently is very accurate to what I see in college students as they have to learn some fairly elementary math in the physics lab. The general attitude is that if there is someone else out there who can do it, why should I? What good is revamping the way we teach math if we do not instill the notion that education is valuable?

Kendal Bond via e-mail

Thank you for printing the stories on Connected Math and Core Math. Our oldest son had a terrible time with Core Math. Our middle son passed with A's. Once we took our oldest son out of Core Math, he blossomed in regular math. The difference is that the teachers didn't know how to teach the class.

Core Math is supposed to be taught in groups. Unfortunately, kids tend to pick their friends to work with. This can lead to a lack of productivity, and there is not a balance among high achievers and low achievers.

Paul Kane Ypsilanti, Mich.

I was very interested in your article on the New Math (May 16) but was disappointed there was no mention of the University of Illinois Math Project in the late '50s and the subsequent Arithmetic Project. When we put the methods into practice, we had excellent results.

On standard tests at the end of the year, my fifth-graders scored two and a half years ahead of grade level in computation, and four years ahead in reasoning! We used the discovery method, too; and nothing was more thrilling than when they worked out on their own the problem of dividing fractions.

Why didn't the "magic" keep working? Because there were no texts; finally ones that came out were extremely unclear, teaching too many concepts.

Mary Freeman Kirkwood, Mo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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