Real Math: Sexist, Racist, or Just
Hard? A group of 200 prominent mathematicians and scientists has called on U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to rescind his department’s ringing endorsement of 10 elementary and secondary mathematics programs, arguing that the programs are damaging to children because they omit instruction in basic mathematics skills. While agreeing that children need to master basic skills, Riley defended the endorsed programs by claiming each had improved student learning. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) endorsed a Top 10 list of elementary and secondary mathematics programs favored by its own Mathematics and Science Expert Panel. Five programs received "exemplary" status, and five others were named "promising." In write-ups of the programs on the government Web site, the panelists said this about
the "promising" "This enriched curriculum includes such features as problem-solving about everyday situations; linking past experiences to new concepts; sharing ideas through discussion; developing concept readiness through hands-on activities and explorations; cooperative learning through partner and small-group activities; and enhancing home-school partnerships." To which Indeed, virtually all of the DoEd-blessed curricula extol the merits of "real world" or "real life" applications of math, with lots of group work, partner quizzes, student role- playing, journals with children’s entries on how they feel about math, copious use of calculators, and group estimating. That’s according to the official descriptions. In general, the federal government’s Top 10 are from what is called the
"Whole Math" genre - a kissing cousin of Whole Language - where basic skills and
teacher-directed instruction are played down in favor of pupil-led discovery, or
constructivism.
The constructivist approach to mathematics has its fans, notably the National Council
of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). This is the group that spurred the Whole Math movement
with its 1989 standards, to which DoEd’s Top 10 adhere. When But DoEd’s unqualified embrace of the constructivist approach - sometimes called
the "New-New Math" - prompted a counterattack by the heaviest artillery yet in
the Math Wars. On November 18, 1999, Secretary Richard Riley and staff spilled their
morning coffee over a full-page The high-powered group protested the absence of active research mathematicians from DoEd’s Expert Panel. They also objected that DoEd’s Top 10 programs omitted basic skills, such as multiplying multi-digit numbers and dividing fractions. "These programs [the Top 10] are among the worst in existence," said Cal State/Northridge math professor David Klein, who helped draft the letter. "It would be a joke except for the damaging effect it has on children." Some of the panelist fought back. For example, Steven Leinwand accused the 200 scholars
of being interested in "math for the elite" alone. Leinwand, math consultant for
Connecticut’s’s education department, said the NCTM and DoEd believe "math
needs to empower all students." However, it was Leinwand who in 1994 wrote in Although a statutory prohibition prevents DoEd from dictating curricula, Congress provided a way around that restriction in 1994 when it passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Title IX called on DoEd’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement to set up Expert Panels to endorse top programs in gender equity, safe and drug-free schools, technology, and math and science. Title IX, like Goals 2000 itself, stressed the idea of equalizing academic outcomes for all sub-groups in the student population. Secretary Riley commented that NCTM has published "the prevailing standards in the country, so we thought that would make sense." But critics see a deliberate integration of ideological agendas. The architects of NCTM’s 1989 standards, declared that social injustices had given white males an advantage over women and minorities in math, and they promised NCTM’s reinvented math would equalize scores. Equality would be achieved by eliminating the "computational gate." Klein argues this Whole Math approach "hurts the students with the least resources the most" by depriving them of the computational basics they need as a foundation for higher math. "If kids get a good, solid program in arithmetic, they have a good chance of learning algebra," he explained, "and algebra’s one of the main gates into colleges." The Whole Math programs are based on the assumption that "minorities and women are too dumb to learn real mathematics," he said. (This article, written by Robert Holland, was taken from the March 2000 edition of |