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The Fog of 'Math Wars'

I'm not used to being a cheerleader for the Bush administration. But when I saw recently that the president had convened a National Math Panel to study, in part, the effectiveness of teaching kids so-called "constructivist" math, I stood up, put my hand over my heart and shouted, "Amen."

About six months ago, The New York Times published a fascinating article about a town of engineers and scientists in Penfield, N.Y., who were gradually waking up to the fact that their kids, educated in a constructivist or "inquiry" program, which emphasized pupils' "constructing their own knowledge" rather than learning math formulas or computational rules, were unable, by junior high school, to make change at McDonald's or multiply two-digit numbers.

I came upon this article at precisely the time I was trying to get my own constructivist-schooled third-grader to stop adding and subtracting on her fingers, so I read it with great interest - and dismay.

School officials in Penfield dismissed parents' complaints about the curriculum by saying that math scores had steadily increased since the late 1990's, when teaching constructivist math became the local norm. Yet there was evidence that this improvement had less to do with the school's instruction than the fact that parents were increasingly teaching their kids old-fashioned math methods themselves. Even the town math champion, who'd been paraded around as a poster boy for constructivist math when he'd become the top scorer on his high school math team and earned a perfect 5 on his advanced placement calculus exam, had, it turned out, been "covertly tutored" in traditional math by his parents.

"My whole experience in math the last few years has been a struggle against the [constructivist] program," he told the Times. "Whatever I've achieved, I've achieved in spite of it. Kids do not do better learning math themselves. There's a reason we go to school, which is that there's someone smarter than us with something to teach us."

I hear stories like this all the time in Washington, D.C., where the constructivist program Everyday Math - also known as Chicago math - is taught just about everywhere, and where old-fashioned strategies like flash cards and basic memorization are dismissively shrugged off as "drill and kill." As in Penfield, where hundreds of kids now are in remediation classes to learn basic computation, I see parents in D.C. routinely outsourcing their kids' basic math instruction either to tutors or to themselves.

This does not appear to bother those parents who have seemingly unlimited amounts of money or time. (I'll always remember the way a table of parents at a private school I once visited crowed, as a teacher walked by, "He's our favorite math teacher! He tutors all our kids!") But for parents who are already stretched and stressed, it feels deeply unfair. It's troubling, too, to watch kids walk away from the classroom experience with the belief that they themselves are deficient.

It would be wonderful to think that the Bush administration's new math initiative will put the needs of these kids center stage and take a truly judicious approach to figuring out how best to serve their needs. I fear, though, that much is working against that outcome. The debate over teaching math, already dubbed the "math wars" (for a one-sided sampling see this collection of articles - http://www.math.nyu.edu/mfdd/braams/links/ ) has quickly become ideological, as did the earlier debate over how best to teach reading (conservative phonics vs. progressive "whole language" learning). And that's a great pity, because politics have little in common with what works best for children in the classroom: flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of instructors, for starters.

There's much to recommend constructivist math - it's often fun, it keeps kids engaged and it allows them, when it works, to embark upon more intellectually challenging kinds of number problems than their grade level would normally permit. (In my daughter Julia's case, once we began to supplement the school's curriculum with flash cards and the "Multiplication Rock" CD, she began to find math "easy" and "fun.") But, like the whole language approach to reading, which can work miracles for some kids yet is nightmarish for others, constructivist math doesn't work for everyone - and, from what I've come to understand, it really shouldn't be taught in isolation to any child.

All kids, regardless of their individual strengths, weaknesses or styles, learning specialists say, need to be grounded in the basic building blocks of math and language skills before they can take the next great leap into creative thinking or abstract thought or more advanced mathematics. The best classrooms - the best teachers - mix their methods and present information to different students in different ways. In other words, teachers shouldn't be narrow-minded, and curricula shouldn't become dogma.

It takes money, though, to train or hire teachers who have the knowledge and know-how to tailor their teaching styles to students' individual learning needs. And it takes smaller class sizes than most schools can now afford. So far, neither of those costly realities has registered high on the president's list of educational priorities. No wonder critics of the Bush administration's attempt to take on this issue worry that this latest, and largest, staged battle in the math wars has been lost in advance.

That the administration has brought the long-simmering debate over constructivist math to the front burner of national consciousness is undoubtedly a good thing. But I predict that if this curricular issue immediately gets caught up in the battleground of left and right and becomes an either/or, standardized-test-defined, cost-efficiency issue, then the needs of our nations' kids are sure to be shunted out of the equation.


From the New York Times, Thursday, June 1, 2006. See http://www.nytimes.com/ OR http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/