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

Quentin Dooley, an 11-year-old in a Chicago Cubs jacket, is plopped on a couch in the back of the room with his partner, Peter Sloan. The two boys spend much of the period giggling--the names of the cats, especially one called "Sweet Pea," keep the pair in stitches. The teacher moves around the classroom, peering over shoulders and making suggestions. "Are you off task again?" she asks Dooley, with a voice indicating playful irritation.

Dooley and his buddy, despite all of the sixth-grade silliness, manage to get two-thirds of the way through the assignment by the time the bell rings at 9:30 a.m.--almost twice as much work as the majority of their classmates have accomplished. The two return after lunch to finish the assignment.

"I think they are trying to make it fun while we do the work," Dooley says, offering his impression of the math class. He adds that he likes the class more than last year's traditional curriculum.

Zipkoff, however, concedes that not all of her students prefer the New New Math. "The top group"--meaning above-grade-level and honors students--"prefer the other book," she says. "They can be told what to do, and then they do it." Zipkoff, for her part, prefers the New New Math. "Now they have to understand the concept before they can do it," she says.

For America's public schools, "How do you teach math?" is giving way to a more fundamental question: "Do you teach math?"

The dearth of math teachers is so great that the prospect of kids getting no math at all actually seems possible. Right now, South Grand Prairie High School has no math teacher for ninth-graders. In Dallas public schools, most high schools were short two or three math teachers at the beginning of the year, a district official says.

Nationally, the Department of Education says 34 percent of the instructors teaching math in public schools have no specialized training. Compare that to a field such as social studies, in which 83 percent of teachers are specifically trained in that discipline.

The shortage of teachers aside, few educators would argue with the desperate need to overhaul math teaching methods. Recent test results show U.S. students bombing in math compared to their international counterparts.

U.S. kids, in fact, rank as veritable math dummies. An exam known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study--given in the mid-90s to fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students in as many as 41 countries--showed American pupils at the fourth-grade level more or less keeping pace, ranking in the middle, below Japan and Korea, but above two dozen other nations. But in the eighth and 12th grades, U.S. students performed abysmally. The eighth-graders ranked 27th among 41 countries. The 12th-graders did even worse, scoring at rock bottom, below students from Cyprus and Latvia.

If American kids are having trouble competing against foreigners, Texans can't even make the grade pitted against the rest of the country. The 100,417 Texas students in public and private schools taking the Scholastic Assessment Test in 1998 scored an average of 501 on the math portion of the college entrance exam, 11 points below the national average.

The ethnic group pulling up results somewhat--and it's no surprise for people like the Shungs--was Asian-Americans. On average, they scored 562.

Even without the test scores, evidence of math ignorance exists everywhere. "Our remedial math population is bulging," says Elizabeth Phillips, a researcher at Michigan State University who interviews hundreds of sophomores each year who express their disappointment at having to switch majors because they can't cut it in math courses required for science-related fields. And in the business world, the demand for math-literate men and women from Southeast Asian countries and India to handle high-paying jobs in the high-tech industry points to deficient math education here.

Even a stop at a local pizza parlor with a teenager manning the cash register reveals the depths of Texas' math problems. The kids get stumped if they have to figure prices without the aid of a calculator. And when is the last time a teen counted back your change--instead of just plopping a wad of bills and coins into your hand?

Appalling math scores in the United States are not a new phenomenon. During World War II, the Army discovered that draftees arrived mathematically unprepared. The hand-wringing that ensued led in the 1950s to the creation of the National Science Foundation, an agency with a mandate to advance math and science teaching. Out of that initiative, the "New Math" appeared. A federally funded, university-researched and developed curriculum, the New Math focused on the theories behind numbers.

By the early 1960s, New Math curricula were the standard nationwide. But the novel lesson plans disappeared almost as fast as they came. The New Math confused just about everyone--most dangerously, the teachers. They tried to convey New Math concepts, but since many didn't understand them themselves, they often failed. As a result, the New Math flowered for a few years, then wilted away.

When the international testing in the mid-'90s revealed how poorly American schools were teaching math, most public schools were employing a hodge-podge of instructional techniques--including a few remnants of New Math principles, back-to-basics techniques developed as a backlash to New Math, and some truly pitiful courses seemingly designed to allow math-deficient students to advance through the grades unnoticed.

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