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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Yet without real change, children will continue to be caught in the middle, striving all day to master material their parents consider unsuitable, then getting extra help with the basics at home at night. In the state of Washington, the private tutoring business has grown steadily since the implementation of Reform Math in 1993. In Brookline, Massachusetts, which has used Reform Math programs Innovations and MathScape, 26 percent of students aged five to ten get outside tutoring, according to a school-system report.

Teachers can be caught in the middle as well. Elizabeth Carson, executive director of NYC HOLD, the city's main back-to-basics group, says she's heard plenty of accounts of teachers closing the door and teaching the basics--instead of the Reform Math that is part of the official curriculum--out of earshot of their administrators. And the Brookline report shows that most elementary school teachers saddled with Reform Math programs think the programs focus too little on computation and traditional algorithms.

The trouble is, "all this talking is going on while our children right now are losing their educations. We don't have ten years, we don't have two years," says Carson, who places blame for the lost years squarely on the NCTM. She's disappointed with the group's retreat from its back-to-basics document: "Either they understand what's wrong with the course they've led us on, or they don't."

The picture isn't all grim. Parents are reaching for their own solutions, teaching drill-and-basics-heavy Sing apore Math, Saxon Math, and Sadlier-Oxford Progress in Mathematics after hours and trading the books on eBay. Some schools and school systems in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Maryland have returned to the basics, adopting Singapore Math and Saxon Math and achieving positive results on their state tests. Perhaps most important, mighty California pioneered a return to the basics with a revision of its math standards starting in 1997, and has tightened its list of approved textbooks in recent years, a victory for parents' groups there.

To be sure, the California standards contain opt-out provisions; yet the state is moving forward. So are Indiana and, to a lesser degree, Massachusetts. If Washington now joins these three, and Utah, North Carolina, and Florida--all soon to revise their standards--follow, the back-to-basics approach could be sufficiently prevalent to influence the publishers of math textbooks. States typically revise their standards once a decade. Market-driven, the publishers are guided by the standards of the most populous states.

Which is why national momentum is so important. If the NCTM promotes its changes aggressively--and if the National Mathematics Advisory Panel proposes changes along similar lines, and these influence states through the No Child Left Behind reauthorization in 2007, as well as through National Science Foundation and National Research Council funding of math-education projects--then the math curricula in the public schools may well improve.

Of course, misguided standards are only one piece of the poor-performance puzzle. Another, possibly larger, problem in math education is the fact that most teachers have a weak educational background in math, as Sandra Stotsky, another member of the national math panel, stressed. A new study from the Education Schools Project shows that only 28 percent of applicants to the education program of a typical public university pass the math portion of their application test the first time they take it. Moreover, only 41 percent of principals surveyed nationally say education graduates are "very well" or "moderately well" prepared to implement state curriculum standards. But fixing teacher education--for instance, requiring teachers to have a degree in their substantive field first, and a specialization in education second--takes a generation. It's also expensive.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the public schools' failure to teach math to a high standard are far-reaching. In 2000, 16 percent of university freshmen took remedial classes in mathematics. For community-college freshmen, the figure was 35 percent. Universities are filling the math gap with better-schooled foreigners: Over half the Ph.D.s in math and engineering, and almost half of master's degrees in computer science, awarded by American institutions are being earned by foreigners, and the foreign population in undergraduate math, engineering, and computer science departments is growing as well. In the broader economy, business groups complain that their employees' math skills are weak. High-tech companies in particular decry the shortage of qualified American job-seekers.

A new direction is essential. Francis Fennell of the NCTM says his group has shipped out 300,000 copies of Focal Points since its release early this fall. That's a start. What's needed now is a clear renunciation of Reform Math, along with all the faddish clutter that still distracts students and teachers in the classroom, and a firm endorsement of the basics--memorization of the multiplication tables and mastery of long division, fractions, and algebra. Fortified by an unambiguous message from the NCTM, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and the 50 states could conceivably reshape the teaching of math--so as to add to the skills and life chances of American schoolchildren instead of subtracting from them.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a columnist for