And parents shouldn’t only be concerned about math instruction. They should be looking hard at the reading and writing parts of their kids’ educations, too. Are they learning grammar? Can they spell? Punctuate? Understand what they are reading? Most of the Ivy League English majors whose writing I grade have trouble in these areas, which suggests to me that most everyone their age does. I tend to assume that the students I see are among the most linguistically competent students of their generation–but there are still a lot of issues with things such as run-on sentences, comma splices, murky phrasing, limited vocabulary, dangling modifiers, spelling, and so on. That’s the legacy of a pedagogical attitude toward literacy that mirrors the one the mother above encountered when she inquired why her son wasn’t being taught basic math skills. When I taught high school English in a boarding school a couple of years ago, I found that a great many students there had abysmal language skills. Some bordered on functional illiteracy. When I asked whether the school taught grammar at any point, the head of school told me that teaching grammar thwarted students’ creativity and stifled their interest in reading. The utter inadequacy of that outlook really hits home when you realize that it amounts to lying to parents and kids about their kids’ abilities, and that it involves sending kids off to college without the skills they will need to succeed there.
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 math — has crippled students with its de-emphasizing 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 tutoring, even for young children. Shalimar Backman, who put pressure on officials here by starting a parents group called 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,” Ms. Backman said, “so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, ‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.
Grass-roots 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.”