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.

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.

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.

Expectations are kept high. A child who starts Kumon as a pre-schooler is supposed to begin algebra by the fifth grade and calculus by the eighth grade. "That's our goal," Tung says. Although the teacher doesn't stand at the front of the room and instruct, Tung does offer guidance. Typically, she lets her students attempt to figure out from examples in their workbooks how to perform a new operation. If they get it wrong two or three times, Tung shows them how to do it.

Many of the children she gets these days--especially those who've come for remedial help--aren't able to zoom through at the scheduled Kumon pace. "What the U.S. schools teach is a mile wide and one inch deep," Tung says. "I get kids who come in to me and say, 'I know fractions.' I test them. They don't know fractions."

Generally, Tung says, she gets children seeking remedial help when they've started getting tested at school on algebraic concepts. "I have to go back and see what is wrong," she says. "Usually we go back several grades."

Jordan, the Kumon regional director, who taught math for 16 years in public schools, offers her own diagnosis. Public-school kids in the sixth grade haven't even mastered whole-number addition and subtraction, much less multiplication or division, she says. "I've seen seventh-graders coming in and counting on their fingers," she says. "How can they handle algebra?" With the push to get more Texas kids into algebra before the ninth grade, Jordan claims districts are watering down their math instruction. Kumon, however, is not a replacement for school math, she cautions. "It is a supplement," she says. "We do no measurement, no time, and only a little geometry."

As a business opportunity, a Kumon franchise is no overnight bonanza. Kumon requires that prospective tutors possess college degrees, pay $500 in initial fees, and receive four weeks of training. For every $80 a month tutors charge the students, $30 of that goes back to the Kumon family. The company also makes a good chunk of money from sales of its materials and workbooks.

For Kumon parents, the costs are substantial. "It's so expensive," says Dennis' mom, Doris Shung. She occasionally entertains thoughts of taking her sons out of Kumon now that they've become solid math citizens. "But they love it," she says. "They want to stay in, and what can you say?"

Without a doubt, Kumon is set up strictly as a money-making enterprise--locating its franchises according to market demands, not need. There are no Kumon centers in southern Dallas, for example, where TAAS scores show a grave need for remedial math education.

The Shungs have a high threshold when it comes to footing the bill for their children's educational opportunities. They send their sons to Kumon classes, private school, and on Sundays, a program to learn Mandarin Chinese.

At The Sunray Chinese Schools, many children also study math for an hour--as well as SAT courses and English. Younger children wrestle with math basics, memorizing multiplication tables and mastering long division. The 25-year-old schools have some 600 students at four locations in North Dallas and the suburbs.

For many, attending the Sunday program means an all-day family event. The parents and children travel long distances--some come to the school in Carrollton from as far away as Keller--and camp out while their kids get tutored. In the cafeteria, parents can buy rice noodle soup or hear guest speakers, such as a recent visitor who discussed breast cancer.

In the classrooms, five or six students are paired with a teacher. First-graders learn how to convert pints into gallons; the kindergarteners make calendars. The Chinese school's math program costs $385 plus a $25 materials fee for a 14-week semester. It's a lot of money for parents of more than one child, yet some of them pay for Kumon as well as the Chinese program.

For many Asian-American families, paying extra for education is a given. Some native-born Americans are beginning to catch on to that example.

Jaleah Montgomery, a nurse who recently moved back to this area after living in North Carolina, sends her five-year-old son Benjamin to the same Kumon center as the Shungs. She got interested when she met a Kumon kid doing quadratic equations in the fifth grade. "I saw it, and I was impressed," she says. "I wish someone had gotten me into it when I was young."

Kumon promoters provide much anecdotal evidence of their successes. One Richardson student who received a near-perfect math score (above 700) on the SAT last year was a Kumon product. But the program doesn't provide a statistical analysis of its results or records of its students' scores on standardized tests.

Word-of-mouth draws the crowds.

A New New Math researcher scoffs at the Kumon program. "They will make a lot of money," says Elizabeth Phillips, a Michigan State researcher who compiles statistics on how students being taught the New New Math curriculum fare on standardized tests. So far, she says, the program has brought good results. In Plano, children who've participated in the pilot program at five middle schools have raised their TAAS scores an average 9 percent, compared to the rest of the children in the district, who've raised their scores 5 percent.

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.

Last fall, Jenkins teamed up with other Plano parents to protest the new math program. They set up a hot line and several community meetings to raise awareness in the suburb. Organizer Ken Johnson hired a lawyer to mount a legal campaign to stop Plano from adopting the curriculum district-wide.

Johnson's and Jenkins' concerns echo those expressed by other parents. "Is there any meat there?" Jenkins asks. "Are the kids really getting the stuff?"

Adds Johnson: "We have no statistical evidence to support this stuff. Why go there?"

Plano administrators have responded to the assault with their own campaign. This fall, Wohlgehagen led a series of parent meetings explaining the pilot program and the district's plans for putting it into place. The subject is on the agenda for the Plano school board's December 8 meeting. Formal adoption of the program wouldn't take place until March, and even Wohlgehagen concedes the program is by no means a done deal. "It's one alternative we are considering," he says. Why are they spending so much time defending it? "It just happens to be the one they're attacking."

In Barbara Zipkoff's morning class, Quentin Dooley and his friend are oblivious to the math debate raging around them. Dooley says his mother, who works as an analyst for EDS, has been perfectly happy with his math work. The boy had trouble last year in an accelerated math class. Pushed down to his own grade level, he's begun to get passing grades again.

Two other boys in his class are in similar circumstances. Jonny Carroll, a slight child in baggy jeans and an oversized T-shirt, finished his feline grid about halfway through the morning period. The teacher asked him to help out the other kids. "I'm doing the same things as I did last year," says Carroll, who believes he was accidentally moved down from the honors class, but decided to leave well enough alone. "But this year, I like the teacher. She helps us understand it."

His mother, who was happy her son moved out of the accelerated class because of the pressures, wasn't aware that her son's current math class used the New New Math curriculum. "Once my kids are in the middle school, they are on their own," Dawn Carroll says. "I helped them in elementary school, but I figure by that time they need to be able to do it by themselves.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...