The Magazine

Down for the Count?

The misbegotten curriculum known as Reform Math is a failure that may finally be on the way out.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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The effects of the Reform Math cure were worse than the poor-performance disease. Where in 1990 some 33 percent of college-bound sophomores had been proficient at "multi-step solutions . . . such as drawing an inference based on an algebraic expression," by 2002 the figure had dropped to 28 percent. Sophomores in "general" high school programs had similarly regressed. The reforms didn't even advance the fashionable goal of attracting girls to math: There were fewer women studying college math in 2004 than in 1989 when the Reform Math standards were published. Fewer men, too.

Reform Math, while not the sole cause of American students' poor performance, bears much of the blame. Says University of Rochester mathematician Ralph Raimi, "A student could take essentially no mathematics at all except for the bare bones of arithmetic until the 9th grade and be better off than today's kids who have reform programs."

So this September, when the NCTM reversed course and published Curriculum Focal Points, calling for a return to basics, the move was heartily welcomed in certain quarters. The 41-page document "makes no bones about the fact that algorithms (such as long division and the concept of borrowing in subtraction) should be taught," says Harvard mathematician Wilfried Schmid, a critic of Reform Math and a member of a new math-education panel appointed by President Bush. Curriculum Focal Points argues for the kinds of practices in use in the countries where children score high on international math tests, such as Singapore and Japan.

Other members of the president's National Mathematics Advisory Panel have also praised the NCTM's new approach--opening the possibility that the national experts might be on the same page as the teachers' group when the panel issues its draft report in February.

If only. Alas, the leadership of the NCTM has already begun to backpedal. Focal Points, says NCTM president Francis "Skip" Fennell, "is not a new version of the Standards." It is not a back-to-basics document, Virginia Warfield, a consultant on Focal Points, told a think tank in Washington. NCTM executives wrote letters of protest to newspapers whose coverage portrayed the document as a new departure.

The mixed signals coming from the NCTM may reflect the fact that many of the council's members are teachers with degrees in education, not math; many of them have been committed to Reform Math for decades, and oppose change. Fennell says that among the group's 100,000 members, it's possible "there are some people who would be concerned about us moving in this direction." Maybe he needs to sound ambivalent to appease them.

But this equivocation robs the NCTM's recommendations of much-needed momentum. Already responsible for the ground lost over the last 15 years, the council may now contribute to national paralysis.

To learn what paralysis looks like, consider New York City. In 2002, facing heavy pressure from parents, the city launched a review of its Reform Math programs (such as TERC's Investigations), under which 43 percent of the city's students were performing below grade level. But with NCTM and an army of education experts still solidly behind Reform Math, the back-to-basics parents, armed only with their children's experience and a few studies, were outgunned. The city did step back from the brink, but only just.

New York selected a new program called Everyday Mathematics. This is "the least objectionable among the reform programs," explains Harvard's Schmid. "They do have a discussion of algorithms, but not one that is designed to get children proficient" speedily and without distractions. That's because the program describes several alternative ways to solve a problem, such as ancient Egyptian multiplication, rather than teaching one method. It downplays mastery of long division, and puts calculators in the hands of kindergartners. Everyday Mathematics is used by over two million children across the country--including many in Fairfax County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., where a parents' movement failed to secure the adoption of the back-to-basics textbook Saxon Math a few years ago.

It's easy to see why grassroots movements founder. Parents don't always want to stick their necks out while their kids are in school, for fear of stigmatizing their children. And the forces aligned against change--administrators, education consultants--are powerful, entrenched, and wealthy.