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

In Texas public schools, pitiful isn't too harsh a word to describe some state-approved math curricula. Up until last year, students could, for instance, graduate from high school without ever taking Algebra I. As recently as 1992, state-approved high school math classes called Consumer Math, Fundamentals of Mathematics, and Relating Mathematics consisted of "rehashes of basic elementary-school mathematics," according to Bill Hopkins, the Texas Education Agency's director of math curricula and programming.

Appalled with test results, the National Center for Teachers of Mathematics issued a set of 54 national standards in 1989. The teachers wanted all students, for instance, to understand algebra by the ninth grade. The goal was to get kids to solve problems and understand mathematical concepts, not just perform mechanical computations. Next, the National Science Foundation kicked $50 million into research to develop math curricula that would advance the new NCTM standards.

Those Science Foundation-funded math curricula are now beginning to appear in children's textbooks and public-school math programs. Plano schools have been testing a program called Connected Mathematics at the middle-school level for the last three years; DISD is experimenting with the same program in some of its sixth-grade classes this year.

For students, the New New Math definitely means more excitement. At Armstrong Middle School in Plano, seventh-grade kids recently pelted the floors and walls of their classroom with marshmallows in a lesson focused on probabilities. The students drew up statistical charts showing whether the marshmallows had landed on their sides or bottoms.

For many teachers, the new curricula are a welcome change. "It's a nice trend," says Larry Ward, the secondary math instructional specialist at the Dallas schools. "Once the kids get to a particular frustration level and have to come to you, you have captured their attention." He adds, however, that the New New Math pilot program "might be history after this year."

For parents beginning to mobilize against the New New Math--groups have successfully overturned efforts to adopt such curricula in some California school districts--all the hoopla seems like a waste of time when kids should be buckling down and doing drills. "There is no statistical evidence to support this shifting, saying that we ought to go here," says Ken Johnson, a parent of three Plano public school students who has organized a community group and hired a lawyer to fight the introduction of the curriculum in his district.

Concedes the TEA's Hopkins, "I think we are really struggling now to find the right balance."

In a world apart from the Plano public schools, the kids at the Prince of Peace Kumon center ignore a plate of sugar-dusted cookies until they've done their daily drill. The students must work for weeks before getting small material rewards for their efforts.

Teacher Sharon Tung is almost apologetic about the cookies' presence. "I don't do that every time," she says. "But I haven't seen them in two weeks, and I missed them."

Tung, who runs two Kumon centers in Plano, has witnessed the recent boom in parents' interest in the traditional program. She doesn't directly attribute the growth to refugees from the New New Math, but does acknowledge the arrival of public-school kids seeking remedial help. Those children join Kumon's regular customer base--children of Asian immigrants, and kids from highly motivated families who want to enhance their children's math skills even further.

A nine-year Kumon instructor, Tung has just returned from a visit to the franchiser's headquarters in Japan for a conference and celebration of the company's birthday. Kumon turned 40 this year.

Four decades ago, Toru Kumon, a Japanese math teacher whose own son was failing math, developed the program--or so the story goes--to help out his boy. His success led to neighbors and friends asking for help, and finally Toru Kumon, who died in 1995, began marketing his worksheets and methods.

It was in the mid-70s that Kumon first arrived on U.S. shores. At first, it was marketed only to expatriate Japanese and Koreans. But the recent bulge in enrollments, according to Amanda Jordan, regional director of Kumon in North Texas, reflects not only the growing Asian populations but interest from native-born Americans who want to get what the public schools aren't teaching effectively.

In Tung's room, 10 kids--seven of Asian descent--keep their pencils working nonstop. Most of them regularly eye the digital clock on the wall. They're supposed to record the times they begin and end each worksheet.

"I tell them every second is important," says Tung, a woman with an easy smile and black hair pulled in a schoolmarm's bun. Tung is the former principal of a Dallas-area weekend school for Chinese immigrants who study Mandarin as well as math and other supplementary academic courses. "If they take too long, they have to redo the set. They are all aware of that."

The Kumon program works on simple principles: speed, accuracy, and an individualized program of self-learning. New enrollees are tested to determine at what level they're working, and are then prescribed exercises a level or two below so they'll enjoy immediate success. When they do the drills, the students are expected to get every single problem right in a limited amount of time. A passing first-grade-level student, for instance, is expected to do 250 addition problems in 10 minutes without any errors. The students must score 100 percent on their drills before they can advance to the next level. Instructors compare the Kumon method to learning how to play piano: Children must practice every day so the numbers become second nature.

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