What math war?

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.

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Comments

  1. Eric Akawie says:

    We have always taught math like Eastasia.

  2. Imagine how long the math wars would have lasted if the educational epicures had had to explain their exciting ideas to mommies and daddies instead of Chief Pedagogical Officers and district superintendents.

  3. “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.”

    Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The party-line Truth will shift and loyalists pretend not to notice, for the Party is never wrong.

    Most disputes over schooling are arguments for a competitive market in schooling. To the extent that a policy dispute reflects a difference of values, monopoly control must create unhappy losers. To the extent that a policy dispute a difference over matters of fact, where “What works?” is an empirical question, a competitive market in education services will provide more information that will a State-wide monopoly system. A monopoly system (e.g., uniform NCTM standards) is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls, a retarded experimental design.

    Monopolization of schooling raises the financial stakes at issue with the selection of textbooks, and puts a teacher’s career at risk if s/he disagrees with prevailing fads. So we have a situation where insiders must pretend, at least, to believe the party line. Some of them actually do.

  4. Robert Wright says:

    Generally, those who are anti-NCTM also believe that evolution is “just a theory.”

    And they tend to have no experience teaching math.

  5. “Generally, those who are anti-NCTM also believe that evolution is ‘just a theory’.
    And they tend to have no experience teaching math.”

    And you know this how? If you go tho the Mathematically Correct (anti-NCTM) website, you will find that a lot of the opposition originated in mathematically literate professionals (engineers, mathematicians). See also the recent book Math Wars, which finds professors of Math Education and the NCTM on one side and academic mathematicians on the other.

    I was for ten years a HS math teacher. Before I switched to Math I was a Biology major. George Washington is a theory we used to explain all these paintings, statues, historical accounts, signed documents, and embossed quarters we have lying around. Evolution by differential reproduction (natural and artificial selection) is a fact which can be demonstrated in the lab with bacterial cultures and antibiotics or fruit flies and pesticides.

    I use worksheets and drill to teach set theory and logical notation, congruence arithmetic, and algebra. One of my students, whom I tutored from 3rd grade to 6th grade, started work on his Masters (Math) last spring. He turned 17 in January. No HS diploma, no college BA. Another just got a perfect 800 Math SAT. I don’t seem to have screwed them up –too– badly with my methods of instruction.

  6. Indigo Warrior says:

    And you know this how? If you go tho the Mathematically Correct (anti-NCTM) website, you will find that a lot of the opposition originated in mathematically literate professionals (engineers, mathematicians).

    It was also engineers, mathematicians, and college professors who pushed the original New Math in 1960. A better idea would have been to track and segregate students by mathematical talent at an early age, and expose the talented students to a concept-rich curriculum.

  7. Oooh… tracking… that’s been a dirty word ever since the mid 90’s. Personally, I support tracking as a way to maximize learning.
    The denial by NCTM of the “math wars” and their stance reminds me of Iran’s denial of the Holocaust and (fill in a Democrat here) complaints about recent elections. It happened, and no amount of denial will make it go away.