Critics of “Fuzzy” Methods Cheer Educators’ Findings; Drills Without Calculators. Taking Cues from Singapore.
The nation’s math teachers, on the front lines of a 17-year curriculum war, are getting some new marching orders: Make sure students learn the basics.
In a report to be released today, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which represents 100,000 educators from prekindergarten through college, will give ammunition to traditionalists who believe schools should focus heavily and early on teaching such fundamentals as multiplication tables and long division.
The council’s advice is striking because in 1989 it touched off the so-called math wars by promoting open-ended problem solving over drilling. Back then, it recommended that students as young as those in kindergarten use calculators in class.
Those recommendations horrified many educators, especially college math professors alarmed by a rising tide of freshmen needing remediation. The council’s 1989 report influenced textbooks and led to what are commonly called “reform math” programs, which are used in school systems across the country.
Francis Fennell, the council’s president, says the latest guidelines move closer to the curriculum of Asian countries such as Singapore, whose students tend to perform better on international tests. There, children focus intensely on a relative handful of topics, such as multiplication, division and algebra, then practice by solving increasingly difficult word and other problems. That contrasts sharply with the U.S. approach, which the report noted has long been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
If school systems adopt the math council’s new approach, their classes might resemble those at Garfield Elementary School in Revere, Mass., just north of Boston. Three-quarters of Garfield’s students receive free and reduced lunches, and many are the children of recent immigrants from such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and El Salvador.
Three years ago, Garfield started using Singapore Math, a curriculum modeled on that country’s official program and now used in about 300 school systems in the U.S. Many school systems and parents regard Singapore Math as an antidote for “reform math” programs that arose from the math council’s earlier recommendations.
The Singapore Math curriculum differs sharply from reform math programs, which often ask students to “discover” on their own the way to perform multiplication and division and other operations, and have come to be known as “constructivist” math.
- 35 of 37 UW Math Department members open letter to the Madison School District.
- Math Forum Audio / Video & Links
- West High School Math Teacher Letter
- UW Math Professor Emeritus Dick Askey reviews Madison School District Math performance information.
- NCTM Press Release
- NCTM Report: Curriculum Focal Points. 18.9MB Full PDF report
- Joanne notes that Kitchen Table Math compares NCTM’s new curriculum focal points to the sequence of topics in Singapore Math.
Strong parent and teacher views on the MMSD’s math strategy may well spill over to non-support for referendums and incumbent board members, particularly in light of increasing UW Math Department activism on this vital matter.