Whole Math Fosters Political Correctness, Not Smarts

Marianne Jennings, a professor at Arizona State University, discovered that her teenage daughter received an A in algebra but could not solve an equation. The textbook, called Secondary Math: An Integrated Approach, includes poetry of Maya Angelou, pictures of President Clinton and Mali wood carvings, and photos of students named Tatuk and Esteban "who offer my daughter thoughts on life." Jennings dubbed the text "Rain Forest Algebra."

The goal of "New-New Math," as it is sometimes called, is to move students beyond mathematical drills so they can "self-discover" mathematical theory and concepts. Students, as a result, do not learn basic skills, and teachers are no longer authority figures qualified to impart objective knowledge. Correct answers are unimportant. In Secondary Math: An Integrated Approach, equations are not mentioned until page 165, and the first solution of a linear equation, reached by guessing, appears on page 218.

Exercises in New-New Math have little to do with math. For example, 2nd graders learn data collection by drawing pictures of their lunch, cutting out the pictures, then placing them in paper bags. Mathematical "concepts" often are laden with feelings, self-esteem, dumbing down, and political correctness.

Critics liken this type of math to Whole Language, which does not teach children reading skills but rather to guess at words. Likewise, in "whole math," students frequently guess at the answers.

"Although the Wicked Whole-Language Witch is dying, the Whole-Math Witch isn’t even ill," said Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics at California State University at Los Angeles.

This change in focus began in 1989 when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended a national overhaul of teaching math to curb falling test scores and renew interest in math. The new math would make the subject more meaningful by changing the emphasis from drills, rules, and rote learning to "real-world problem solving."

The voluntary national standards and tests that President Clinton supports would contain such math.

New-New Math has become a vehicle for an aggressive multicultural agenda. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a promoter of whole math, riddles its literature with advice on how to push multiculturalism in arithmetic and math lessons.

"Ethnomathematicians" are now sprouting up to contest the claim that Western math is a universal and abstract discipline that has little to do with culture and ethnicity. Rather, they say, Western math is an expression of white male culture imposed on non-whites.

Dan Caton, of Scott Foresman/Addison Wesley, the publisher of Focus on Algebra: An Integrated Approach, defends the book. "Our culture is changing," he said, "and our books have to reflect that culture."

Mathematically Correct, a San Diego-based organization that opposes whole math, has posted a list of commandments on its Web side, including "Honor the correct answer more than the guess," "Give good grades only for good work," and "Avoid vague objectives."