It took parents 17 years to overturn the tragic 1989 curriculum mistake made by so-called education experts who demanded that schools abandon traditional mathematics in favor of unproven approaches. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics finally reversed course on Sept. 12 and admitted that elementary schools really should teach arithmetic, after all.Several points need to be made here.
The new report called "Curriculum Focal Points for Pre-kindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics" is a back-to-basics victory that rejects the type of math curricula that parents had derided as "fuzzy math" or "rain forest math." Experts preferred such hoity-toity titles as "New New Math," "Connected Math," "Chicago Math," "Core-Plus Math," "Whole Math," "Interactive Math" or "Integrated Math."
Whatever the title, these curricula imbedded the notion that estimates are acceptable in lieu of accurate answers to math problems so long as students feel good about what they are doing and can think up a reason for doing it. Fuzzy curricula were big on discussion, coloring, playing games, and early use of calculators.
The 1989 report, which gives the word "standards" a bad name, flatly opposed drilling students in basic math facts, taught that memorization of math facts was bad, and failed to systematically build from one math concept to another. Children were encouraged to "discover" math on their own, construct their own math language, and flounder with their own approaches to solving problems.
This silliness is based on the false notion that children can develop a deeper understanding of mathematics when they invent their own methods for performing basic calculations.
Despite widespread parental opposition, in October 1999 Bill Clinton's Department of Education officially endorsed 10 new math courses, based on the 1989 "standards," for grades K-12, calling them "exemplary" or "promising." Local school districts were urged to adopt one of them, and were baited with federal money inducements.
One department-approved "exemplary" course, "MathLand," directed children to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide. It's too bad the kids weren't told that wiser adults have already discovered how to do all those basic computations rapidly and accurately.
It wasn't only parents who quickly sized up fuzzy math curricula as subtracting rather than adding to the skills of schoolchildren. On Nov. 18, 1999, more than 200 prestigious mathematicians and scholars, including four Nobel laureates and two winners of the Fields Medal, the highest math honor, published a full-page ad in the Washington Post criticizing the "exemplary" curricula.
But Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley refused to back away from the department's endorsements and the 1989 "standards" adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
With such vague parameters for courses in math, trendy instructors began advancing their political agenda by injecting ethnic studies into math textbooks. Some taught what Diane Ravitch calls "ethnomathematics," the far out notion that traditional math is too Western and therefore students should be taught in ways that relate to their ancestral culture.
The diversion of math into the teaching of political correctness was illustrated by the "anti-racist multicultural math" curriculum adopted by Newton, Mass. It's no wonder that test scores dropped after this "math" curriculum's top priority became "Respect for Human Differences."
First, it's interesting to note that every progressive education fad is an unmitigated disaster.
Second, if you ever doubt that there's anything good that liberals won't destroy, remember "ethnomathematics" and "rainforest math."
Third, this sort of thing can only happen in a socialist government monopoly. As Schlafly points out, parents hated this all along. If they could choose where their children went to school, they would choose schools that used the traditional approach to math. This would force the other schools to cancel "new new math." Thanks to our government monopoly, people's only choice was to pay thousands of dollars to send their children to private schools. Of course, now millions of parents are homeschooling, and the number continues to increase.
Fourth, there is a subtext to this story that even Schlafly doesn't pick up on. Remember, we are talking about two different approaches to learning mathematics. In the first, a teacher drills the children until they have memorized basic facts. In the second, the children discuss the subject amongst themselves and try to discover it without the teacher's help. The other thing you need to know is that teachers' unions have a significant amount of influence over what is taught in the classroom.
Think on this: which of the two approaches are they more likely to favor?
Ding! Time's up. Set down your pencils.
Of course, the union will favor the approach in which the teacher does less work. As union boss Al Shanker once said, "When school children start paying union dues, that 's when I'll start representing the interests of school children." This goes a long way to explain the popularity of "whole math."