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

Those results are what made Jim Wohlgehagen, secondary mathematics coordinator for the Plano schools, seriously consider adopting New New Math throughout the district.

At a recent interview, Wohlgehagen hardly seemed like the demon some of his detractors have made him out to be. Like some other educators around the country who've moved to adopt the New New Math, Wohlgehagen has been the subject of below-the-belt attacks. Ken Johnson, one of the parents leading the charge against the proposed curriculum, suggests to practically anyone who attends his numerous community meetings or calls on his special hot line that the PISD administrator has some kind of personal stake in the New New Math as an alumnus of Michigan State.

It's true that Wohlgehagen did his undergraduate work at Michigan State, his master's at the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. But his links with the New New Math started the same way as those of most teachers around the country who are using the program. Michigan State researchers had received a $5 million grant, much of which was earmarked to disseminate their newly developed curriculum to teachers.

So four years ago, Wohlgehagen got a letter--just like hundreds of other administrators nationwide--asking whether he wanted to attend a program to learn about the novel methods. At the conference, five Texas school districts got together and agreed to work as a group on testing the curriculum. Wohlgehagen went back to his district, gave math teachers the materials, and asked whether they wanted to volunteer. Four Plano middle schools volunteered. Not coincidentally, they were the ones on the east side of the district with the more transient populations and lower TAAS scores.

Wohlgehagen has observed the Kumon method first-hand, and he isn't impressed. Several years ago, his own children were attending a Richardson school that tried the technique for a year in an attempt to raise TAAS scores. Wohlgehagen volunteered to help. "It's terribly labor-intensive, and there is no instruction," he says.

Furthermore, kids wouldn't tolerate the boring drills. "Fifteen minutes is a long time for a kid. They'd sit there and complain," he says. (As an incentive to keep her children focused, Tung rewards her charges with "Kumon dollars," which can be exchanged for small plastic toys and mechanical pens--a big favorite with 8-year-old boys.)

Teaching New New Math himself for a year to sixth-graders convinced Wohlgehagen about its benefits. He isn't worried about any loss of computational skills.

"When they say we don't do computation, it's ridiculous," he says. To support his point, Wohlgehagen gives an example of a chapter from a sixth-grade New New Math textbook in which children are instructed to play "The Product Game." The "game" consists of a list of factors and a grid with their products. For example, six and eight are listed as factors, and on the grid, 48 is their product. (Quick remedial lesson: 6 x 8=48.) The students essentially play a game of tic-tac-toe, matching products with factors instead of using X's and O's. Is there any concern that kids will simply refuse to play? "I taught this program, and they all played," Wohlgehagen says.

The administrator has given in to the traditionalists in one way. The district supplements its New New Math curriculum with old-fashioned worksheets. Each week, students solve 20 computational problems at home. The kids are supposed to complete five problems a night and turn in the lot of them on Friday with a parental signature to prove they didn't use a calculator.

It doesn't work exactly like that in practice: seems that many kids and their parents can't withstand the discipline of keeping up the drills, so this year the teachers dropped the signature requirement. "The teachers said, 'It's just not worth the battle,'" Wohlgehagen says.

At the same time Plano administrators began exploring the New New Math, Ronni Jenkins, a mother of four, moved from Plano to Carlsbad, California for a year when her husband, a systems engineer, was temporarily transferred. Jenkins' oldest daughter, at that time a sixth-grader, had been enrolled in the gifted program at Plano schools. She'd always excelled in math, her mother says.

In California, her daughter's school participated in an experimental math program. This didn't overly concern Jenkins, as her daughter continued bringing home A's. She did notice, however, that the program required her daughter to do more writing than actual problem-solving and, as a result, the grading seemed more subjective. What she didn't know was that the California math program would turn out to be the New New Math curriculum Plano schools would soon begin testing.

When the Jenkinses returned to Plano, she found out about the district's plans to launch the New New Math program and was deeply concerned. That's because her daughter was now struggling with traditional math. "We had a painful and horrible experience," Jenkins says. "She didn't know anything anymore. It took night after night of hard work for her and myself and my husband." Her daughter, she says, eventually caught up and remained in an advanced math class. But Jenkins is concerned that her younger children will be subjected to the New New Math.

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