Lead Wall Street Journal Editorial: Math Wars

January 4, 2000
Page A22
By Tom Lehrer (1965)



So you've got thirteen
And you take away seven,
And that leaves five...
...Well, six actually
But the idea is the important thing


Reinventing math is an old tradition in this country. It has been around at least since the 1960's, when the inimitable Tom Lehrer mocked the New Math in Berkeley cafes. Even Beatniks understood that a method that highlights concepts at the expense of plain old calculation would add up to trouble. And, as it happened, the New Math's introduction in schools across the country coincided with the onset of a multi-year decline in math scores.

Today the original New Math is old hat, but many folks in the education world are hawking yet another reform. It is known by names like "Connected Math," or "Everyday Math." Not surprisingly, the New New Math has a lot in common with the Old New Math. Like its forerunner, it focuses on concepts and theory, scorning textbooks and pencil-and-paper computation as "rote drill." And like its forerunner, today's New Math has powerful allies. Education secretary Richard Riley and other Clintonites smile on it. Eight of the 10 curriculums recently recommended for nationwide use by an influential Education Department panel teach the New New Math.

Not that all members of the Academy are joining the movement. Within weeks of the Education Department findings, 200 mathematicians and scientists, including four Nobel Prize recipients and two winners of a prestigious math prize, the Fields Medal, published a letter in the Washington Post deploring the reforms. More are now rallying on an opposition Website, "mathematicallycorrect.com".

And well they might. For programs of the sort picked by the federal panel turn out to be horrifyingly short on basics.

Consider MathLand, which won a "promising" rating from the panel. Its literature says it focuses on "attention to conceptual understanding, communication, reasoning and problem solving." This sounds harmless, but consider: MathLand does not teach standard arithmetic operations. No carrying and borrowing at the blackboard here. Instead, children are supposed to meet in small groups and invent their own ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide. This detour is necessary, the handbook informs, to spare youngsters the awful subjugation of "teacher-imposed rules." Next comes Connected Math, another panel favorite. It too skips or glosses over crucial skills. Example: The division of fractions, an immutable prerequisite for algebra, is absent from its middle-school curriculum. In shutting the door to algebra, David Klein of Cal State Northridge points out, "Connected Math also closes doors to careers in engineering and science for its graduates."

Finally there is Everyday Math. No textbooks here, either. Everyday Math ensures juvenile dependency to calculators by endorsing their use from kindergarten. Rather than teach long division, the program devotes substantial time to that important area of math study, self-esteem. A Grade 5 worksheet asks students to fill in the blanks on the questions below:

A. If math were a color, it would be_____, because____.

B. If it were a food, it would_______, because_____.

C. If it were weather, it would be_______, because, ______.

We'll allow a pause here for primal screams.

And then move on to the main question: Why? The reason for the New New Math, as for many other curriculum reforms, is that teachers, school administrators and their unions are tired of being blamed for statistical declines and poor student performances. So with math, as in their campaign to dumb down the SAT, such educators work to destroy or reject the standards that brought them trouble in the first place. Children are different nowadays, goes the line, and cannot be measured by old benchmarks.

New Mathie and federal panel member Steven Leinwand explains: "It's time to recognize that, for many students, real mathematical power, on the one hand, and facility with multidigit, pencil-and-paper computational algorithms, on the other, are mutually exclusive." Or, as Professor Klein translates: "Underlying their programs is an assumption that minorities and women are too dumb to learn real mathematics."

Fortunately, America is not France, where a central government controls every aspect of schooling down to the color of the paper clips. Localities and states write their own curriculums, and can and do fight back against the New Math. California for example, reversed a calculator-friendly policy in grammar schools after scores dropped precipitously. Resource-rich families, too, one suspects will find ways to compensate for what trendy schools omit. Still, New Math will take its casualties, especially among the poor, adding to the already mounting costs of the decline in national educational standards.

For a good website to check out the various math curriculum, see: http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com