Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Back to old school math teaching.

Edumacation: It took them almost 20 years before realizing they screwed up a ton of kids with their hippy new age math teaching.

SEATTLE — For the second time in a generation, education officials are rethinking the teaching of math in American schools. The changes are being driven by students' lagging performance on international tests and mathematicians' warnings that more than a decade of so-called reform math, critics call it fuzzy, has crippled students with its downplaying of basic drills and memorization in favor of allowing children to find their own ways to solve problems. At the same time, parental unease has prompted ever more families to pay for outside tutoring, even for young children. Shalimar Backman, who put pressure on officials here by starting a parents' group, Where's the Math?, remembers the moment she became concerned. "When my oldest child, an A(plus) stellar student, was in sixth grade, I realized he had no idea, no idea at all, how to do long division," Backman said, "so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, 'We don't teach long division; it stifles their creativity."' Across the nation, the reconsideration of what should be taught and how has been accelerated by a report in September by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading group of math teachers. It was a report from this same group in 1989 that influenced a generation of teachers to let children explore their own solutions to problems, write and draw pictures about math and use tools like the calculator alongside of learning algorithms. But this fall, the group changed course, recommending a tighter focus on basic math skills and an end to "mile wide, inch deep" state standards that force schools to teach dozens of math topics in each grade. In fourth grade, for example, the report recommends that the curriculum should center on the "quick recall" of multiplication and division, the area of two-dimensional shapes and an understanding of decimals.
Grassroots groups in many cities are agitating for a return to basics. Many point to California's standards as a good model: The state adopted reform math in the early 1990s but largely rejected it near the end of the decade, a turnaround that led to rising math achievement. "The Seattle level of concern about math may be unusual, but there's now an enormous amount of discomfort about fuzzy math on the East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and now New Jersey is starting to make noise," said R. James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford University. "There's increasing understanding that the math situation in the United States is a complete disaster."
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