Should we teach students how to manipulate numbers, or should we teach them abstract mathematical reasoning? Do very young children learn to read best by studying letters and sounds, or by recognizing words and sentences?
Most people know that these questions pose false choices. Children need basic and analytical skills in math as well as phonics and "whole language" in reading. But you'd never know that by listening to the din of America's culture war over education, which diverts us from the real problem in our public schools: the poor preparation of teachers.
Last month, New York City school chancellor Joel Klein announced uniform math and reading curricula for 1,000 of the city's 1,200 elementary and middle schools. Students in kindergarten and third grade will use "Month-by-Month Phonics," which helps children sound out words. Kindergartners through fifth graders will learn "Everyday Mathematics," which stresses conceptual thinking and problem solving. So does "Impact Mathematics," required in grades six through eight.
Mr. Klein took pains to note that none of these programs commits teachers to a single approach. The phonics course requires just 45 minutes per day of instruction, leaving plenty of time for book reading. Similarly, math teachers will be expected to teach basic operations as well as higher-level concepts.
Nevertheless, critics were quick to pounce. Especially in schools of education, where whole-language instruction is the received wisdom, professors condemned "Month-by-Month Phonics" for imposing "lockstep learning" and for interfering with the "joy of reading." Parent groups blasted "Everyday Mathematics" as "fuzzy math," a feel-good social experiment that minimizes basic skills like multiplication and long division.
What's going on here? At their root, our battles over reading and math aren't about reading and math at all; instead, they involve competing conceptions of human nature and development. One side thinks children develop naturally, while the other believes that learning must be imposed upon their natures.
Hence the central role of rules in both debates. To phonics advocates, kids need to know the rules of the alphabet - this letter makes that sound - before they can read. Nonsense, reply whole-language proponents: A child who is ready to read will do so without any rules, learning words and sentences from their context.
In the math wars, likewise, the basic-skills crowd wants children to master the rules governing certain operations: how to "carry a one" in addition, how to "borrow a one" in subtraction, and so on. To self-described "constructivists" in education schools, however, this approach prizes mechanical routine over real human knowledge. Students should experiment with different approaches and arrive at their own conclusions, not simply parrot the "one right answer" that the teacher wants.
Lost in all of this rhetoric was the reaction of New York's teachers' union, which praised the new curricula but worried that teachers would lack the skills to implement them - especially in math. And no wonder: Most people teaching math in this city are woefully unprepared to do so. Nationwide, about a third of junior high school and high school math teachers have neither a major nor a minor degree in math. In New York, the proportion of unqualified instructors is probably much higher than that.
At the elementary level, meanwhile, the state simply requires too few math courses to give teachers the background that they need. How else to interpret the union's concern about the math curriculum?
To its credit, the city's Board of Education has promised extensive training for teachers in the new reading and math programs. But that's a stopgap measure, at best.
Our next generation of teachers needs much more disciplinary knowledge if children are to develop the basic and the abstract skills that they need.
Think back to your own education. Your best teachers combined old and new approaches, requiring you to memorize as well as to analyze. They taught you some words by sounding them out, and others from their place in stories; they taught some math operations by rote, and others by induction.
Our kids will do the same, of course, but only if we provide them with knowledgeable teachers. Until then, our futile culture wars will continue to rage - all sound and fury, signifying almost nothing.
• Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'