NYT Letters: The New New Math: Back to Basics

NYT Letters to the Editor regarding “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics“:

s a middle school tutor, I’m always amazed at the pride many schools feel because their middle school curriculum includes topics in pre-algebra/algebra. This sounds like good news until it becomes clear that it’s not pre-algebra that students find problematic: it’s basic arithmetic.
Enabling students to have rote facts at their fingertips endows them with great self-confidence and permits them to take risks with subsequent higher-thinking math skills. This self-confidence eliminates that “fear” of math that prevails in our culture.
When I was an elementary school student in the 1950s, what was drilled daily in the classroom was reinforced nightly with numerous homework problems.
This is a technique that not only allows students to master the math basics, it also instills a sense of self-esteem gained through accuracy, precision and academic discipline.
E. S. Goldberg
Miami, Nov. 14, 2006
I was an educator in New York City for 31 years, and in my educational lifetime as dean of a Manhattan high school, a teacher in several junior and senior high schools and in summer and afternoon school tutorial programs, and a night adult-school teacher, I was involved in many new teaching programs.
Education is not an activity to promote politically correct reforms. Education is a process by which students are taught fundamentals in a structured environment with the least amount of distractions and political or doctorate-minded invasions.
The outrageous proposals to substitute the basics will always be with us, and the smart thing to do is not to waste the good taxpayer’s patience or money.
John A. Manicone
Port St. Lucie, Fla., Nov. 14, 2006

As a high school teacher of many years and a mother, I, too, am greatly concerned with curriculum revision that tends toward the dogmatic acceptance of one educational model over other models.
As most teachers know, there is not one path to mastery. What works well in one arena does not necessarily translate to another arena. Children who memorize multiplication tables have an easier time on standardized tests and in life than those who only know how to creatively group together dried kidney beans to figure out the process and answer.
Realistically, both models have a place in the classroom. But ultimately, at the end of the day, the person needs to know the answer.
Perhaps the problem lies with the commercialization of educational models and the proliferation of high-priced consultants. When incomes are determined by reinvention, then reinvention reigns over best practices. The question should not be what are the most interesting or creative models but what are the most effective strategies for teaching a particular subject.
Elizabeth Napp
Mount Kisco, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2006
To the Editor:
Isn’t there a very simple and obvious answer here? If the kids in Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere do so much better in math than our kids do, why not just use their textbooks and curriculum rather than reinvent the wheel?
Certainly, this would be a faster and more economical approach to this problem than reinventing curriculum and textbooks yet again.
Diana d’Ambra
Maplewood, N.J., Nov. 14, 2006

To the Editor:
No pun intended, the common denominator in predicting either the success or failure of any math curriculum — and I have been involved in a countless number of them during the past 45 years as a math educator — is the balance in it between theory and rote learning.
It didn’t harm me any to wait till I learned college-level and in some instances postgraduate-level mathematics to learn of the theoretical underpinnings of some algorithms. Frankly, frequently a greater level of mathematical maturity is needed to fully understand and appreciate such.
And let’s not forget the need for teachers who understand the nature of mathematics!
Milton L. Meller
Brooklyn, Nov. 14, 2006

To the Editor:
Thank you for publishing your article on the country’s lagging math scores.
I wrote a letter to the superintendent of my suburban Seattle school district when I was a junior in high school being poorly prepared for the SAT. I pointed out precisely the same problems with “reform math” that your article outlined.
I am now a sophomore in college and still paying the price for the poorly developed methods of “Integrated Mathematics.” You can be sure I will be forwarding a copy of this article to the superintendent, as well as updating her on my progress in remedial algebra. I’ll get the basics this time around; unfortunately, my parents are now paying $40,000 for them.
Alison Bailey
Portland, Ore., Nov. 14, 2006

To the Editor:
Raising the bar won’t help, unless the children are developmentally ready for the concepts being taught.
As a fifth-grade teacher in California, I am forced to teach concepts that I learned in junior high school (prime factorization, plane geometry, integers), in addition to some concepts I learned in high school, like the volume of a pyramid or copying a triangle with a compass. If that weren’t bad enough, I find that I spend much time trying to bring them up to snuff on doing all basic operations in decimals and fractions.
All of this would be great to use as enrichment, since the upper fourth of the class usually grasps the material. However, the rest of the class truly struggles. I would advise against using California’s math standards, unless they are thoughtfully pruned.
Carol Tensen
Burbank, Calif., Nov. 14, 2006

To the Editor:
One reads every day that American students are lagging in mathematics and sciences. Has anyone paid any attention to their English lately? We’re a country where the majority of people speak only one language, and that one they speak badly. Arts? Literature? History? Government? American students are lagging, period!
Mary C. Stephenson
Austin, Tex., Nov. 15, 2006

One thought on “NYT Letters: The New New Math: Back to Basics”

  1. Many readers of “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics” will be interested to know that Milgram, Howe (Yale), Richard Askey (Wisconsin), Retakh (Rutgers), Fuson (Northwestern), the leaders of the math education system in Hungary (including International Mathematical Union President Lovász) and in Russia (including Ilyashenko (Cornell), Gutenmacher, Rabbot, Toom, Yashchenko and many Moscow Center for Continuing Mathematical Education team members), Namikawa (Nagoya), and Gardiner (Birmingham) and other European school mathematics leaders are behind the new mathematics programs (inspired early on by LiPing Ma) of Advanta.net (http://www.advantaeducation.net).
    The math programs are designed to bring the math competence of North American and Western European teachers and students up to that of their peers in the countries that consistently score at the top of international education rankings. Advanta.net’s Board group includes the likes of former Senator Bill Bradley, former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley Professor Robert Reich, Sun co-founder John Gage, and a growing list of European former Ministers of Education.
    The mathematics programs encompass separate Master’s Degree-earning programs for elementary and middle school teachers (starting 2007/January) as well as after-school programs (starting 2006/December), both for elite students and for students who need remedial guidance.
    As will be expected by those who know members of the content team the learning approach is fundamentally different from the one of Kumon, in that it is based on fewer, harder, richer problems that develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.
    Advanta.net is at the absolute technological forefront in that the company’s classrooms are set up so that the Master Instructors and program participants all see each other, from schools or their home, through high-quality Internet video, and in that the community knowledge is quickly expanded by the consistent use of wikis. Advanta.net’s infrastructure will soon allow it to serve, with much live and rich media interaction, some 300,000 teacher program participants and a similar number of student program participants.
    In New York City Advanta.net is preparing to run sessions for math coaches – this as a stepping stone towards serving many of the more than 10,000 NYCDOE teachers who need extensive professional development even if strict subject specialization is introduced at the elementary school level.
    For information email advantanet@www.socialtext.net, with the Subject line preferably set to precisely
    Policy and marketing/United States/National and Multi-State/Mathematics/General
    Erik Syring

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