Math war? What math war? In Fuzzy memory on fuzzy math in the SF Chronicle, columnist Debra Saunders is amazed to discover a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics official who denies the national group’s new call for teaching math skills represents a change of philosophy or that the math wars ever raged. Saunders writes:
Stanford University math professor James Milgram, who advised the NCTM on the new guidelines, told Education Week that the new guidelines represent “an end to the math wars.” Milgram was referring to the ideological battle between educators, who believe that students should memorize multiplication tables and master long-division, and educrats, who believe teachers should encourage students to discover math for themselves and master estimating numbers.
In 1989, the NCTM was on the fuzzy side. The council argued that kids did not need to memorize math facts because, “The calculator renders obsolete much of the complex pencil-and-paper proficiency traditionally emphasized in mathematics courses.”
. . . Trendy programs recommended that students work in groups so that they could discover the answers. Instead of memorizing 5+4=9, students would look for creative ways to solve the equation, such as that 5+5=10, but since 4 is 1 less than 5, the answer is 9. In the name of creativity, new-new math was both time-consuming and boring.
Now NCTM thinks fourth graders should demonstrate quick recall of multiplication tables. Right answers are back. So Saunders was surprised when NCTM executive director Jim Rubillo said the new guidelines were a “continuation” of the 1989 standards, and there is no “change in philosophy.”
Don’t blame the NCTM for bad trendy textbooks, Rubillo added: “In theater, I’ve seen Shakespeare done very well and very poorly.”
Forsooth: Fuzzy math doth not equal Shakespeare.
Rubillo claimed, “The math wars are just an invention in the last few years of just a couple of people.”
This mess started when true believers turned math into a faith-based folly. When angry parents and teachers rebelled, the faddists denied that they had moved away from the basics. After years of clashes within curriculum commissions and fierce textbook battles, they now deny there was a curriculum war. Then they wonder why no one believes them.
Perhaps it’s unfair to say that NCTM lost the math war and surrendered, but they’ve negotiated an armistice that leaves their opponents holding most of the ground. Perhaps NCTM folks are suffering amnesia due to post-traumatic stress.
In a well-timed Education Next article (pdf), Barry Garelick analyzes an experiment with Singapore Math, the anti-NCTM program, in suburban Maryland.