Math wars

Plano parents lay siege to enthusiasts of the "New New Math" in a fight over how to fix the sorry state of math instruction in the public schools

At 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, 11 grade-school kids sit quietly at metal desks in a borrowed classroom. The only sounds are the scuffing of pencil on paper and occasional sighs. Heads bent in concentration, the children mow down pages and pages of math problems while their teacher paces unobtrusively behind them.

The kids, ages 5 through 13, are practicing their "Kumon," an after-school math tutoring program developed in Japan that prescribes daily, timed math drills.

With furrowed brow, Dennis Shung, a cheerful fifth-grader in a neat white shirt and blue trousers, his school uniform at Prince of Peace Lutheran in Plano, tackles a series of fractional multiplication problems. He attends the half-hour Kumon sessions twice a week at Prince of Peace, where his instructor, Sharon Tung, has leased a classroom. Dennis' parents, who were schooled in Taiwan and Hong Kong, first enrolled their son in Kumon when he was five. By now, the considerable costs ($80 a month) and the boy's daily efforts (15 minutes of intensely focused homework seven days a week) have paid off.

Asked what he likes about his Kumon, which is well-known in Asian communities nationwide, Dennis initially parrots the talk of grown-ups. "It helps sharpen my skills," he says, fidgeting in his seat. A moment later, when he's settled down a bit, he offers a less varnished reason: "I'm faster than everybody in my class."

His mother, Doris Shung, says her son takes special pride in being able to wallop a friend with whom he competes in informal math contests. But it's his school performance that pleases her the most. Dennis performs arithmetic a full grade level ahead of his private-school classmates, and his teacher recently asked him to represent the school in a math competition.

A few seats away from Dennis sits Anita Amin. She's pushed her way through several pages of fractional addition problems, not bad for a skinny 7-year-old. Amin's father waits patiently outside the classroom, holding his daughter's coat.

"You done?" he asks when Anita emerges from the classroom after 15 minutes. "OK. Let's go."

Anita's father, Ashvin Amin, an IBM engineer, enthusiastically endorses Kumon--despite its hefty costs. He and his wife have decided that Anita doesn't get enough math at her public school, Indian Creek Elementary in the Carrollton Independent School District. Although she performs in math above most of her classmates, the Amins believe the school has set its expectations way too low. So Anita supplements her schoolwork with Kumon.

"I look at what the kids in her grade are doing, and I know I was way ahead of what they are doing here when I was that age," says Amin, who was born and educated in Northern India, near the border with Pakistan.

With attitudes like the Amins' growing more prevalent, Kumon tutoring centers have experienced explosive growth in recent months in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Some 22 branches of the franchise--double last year's number--are now up and running in Dallas, Fort Worth, and neighboring suburbs. In October alone, six new branches opened.

Why the sudden interest? For clues to an answer, one need only look at the sorry state of math instruction in public schools--and a simmering feud in Plano over a newfangled fix to this nationwide problem.

Kumon represents one extreme in a national debate over how to teach children mathematics. A surprisingly emotional battle, the "math wars" have pitted traditionalists, who focus on computation and basic problem-solving skills, against supporters of more creative techniques. The traditionalists want to see more of the type of drilling that takes place in Kumon programs. Reformers support curricula now dubbed the "New New Math" that university researchers developed during the last five years with the aid of federal grants.

New New Math curricula share the goal of inspiring kids to discover for themselves the importance of math by solving real-world problems. In doing so, the children are supposed to get a backdoor understanding of computations.

The grasping for new instructional techniques takes place amidst two vicious, self-feeding trends--poor math skills nationwide, when measured against the accomplishments of children in other industrialized countries; and a dire shortage of math teachers in the public schools.

In a sixth-grade math class at Bowman Middle School in East Plano, 20 students recently paired off to crack a lesson involving percentages, decimals, and fractions. The teacher, Barbara Zipkoff, is trained in the New New Math. Her class was specially chosen by Plano school officials--apparently because of the kids' relatively good behavior--to demonstrate the pilot program to a reporter. Appearances are extremely important to the Plano public schools these days, because the New New Math pilot has sparked an increasingly bitter fight between parents and district administrators, who want to adopt the novel math curriculum in all the schools.

In Zipkoff's morning class, students huddle in twos over pushed-together desks. They've pulled out multicolored markers from their backpacks, as well as calculators--a forbidden tool in a Kumon center but a frequent aid in New New Math classrooms.

Each student has worksheets in front of him listing 100 cats by names, ages in months, and gender. They also have copies of a black-and-white grid inscribed with the 100 felines' names. The in-class assignment: Color-code the grid so the students can answer questions about the percentage of kittens, adults, males, and females.

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