In Washington state, the home of Microsoft and Boeing, only half of 10th graders are proficient in math. The state is rethinking reform math, reports the New York Times. Parents are paying for outside tutoring.

“My mother is a high school math tutor, and her joke is that this (reform) math is what’s kept her in business,” said Marcy Berejka, who each week brings Ben, 8, and Dana, 6, to Kumon, a tutoring center based in Japan that has more than a dozen franchises in the Seattle area. “There’s a lot that’s good in the new curriculum, but if you don’t memorize the basic math facts, it gets harder as math gets more complicated.”

. . . In part, the math wars have grown out of a struggle between professional mathematicians, who say too many American students never master basic math skills, and math educators, who say children who construct their own problem-solving strategies retain their math skills better than those who just memorize the algorithm that produces the correct answer.

If reform math programs really taught students to understand math concepts, surely math professors would be delighted. The fact that they’re leading the bring-back-math movement tells me something.

> “The Seattle level of concern about math may

> be unusual, but there’s now an enormous

> amount of discomfort about fuzzy math on the

> East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts and

> Pennsylvania, and now New Jersey is starting

> to make noise,” said R. James Milgram, a math

> professor at Stanford University.

> “There’s increasing understanding that the

> math situation in

> the United States is a complete disaster.

The article didn’t mention NCLB, but clearly getting the tests results from all of the states on the table had a lot to do with people recognizing that “creativity” is not “mastery” of a demanding topic, like mathematics.

> “In Asian cultures,” she added, “the

> assumption is

> that everyone learns mathematics, and of course,

> parents will help with mathematics.”

Hmm .. the CIA Factbook points out that 49% of the Chinese populace is engaged in agriculture. In Vietnam, 56% are involved in agriculture. It’s a little difficult to believe that these parents are involved in helping their kids do their math homework.

What is true is there is no MTV, or driver’s licenses for 16 year olds, or easy access to drugs and alcohol. Nor is there any easy access to welfare/entitlement programs. What is also true is that these people are on the bottom of the world’s economic spectrum, and are hungry for a better life.

But if you’ve seen my Shanghainese nephew’s math homework, you’d be amazed. I had a look at his eighth grade (equivalent) homework, and his problems sets included math problems, word problems, and hugely tricky “puzzle problems” that are challenging even for a math weenie like me. And unlike lots of “puzzle problems” in the US, all of his problems are graded.

And for self-esteem types, everyone’s score is posted on the schoolroom door, along with their real names. If you suck, everyone knows it.

As for “cultural” stuff, one thing that is true about Asia is the standing assumption that math can, and should, be learned, and being “untalented” isn’t an acceptable excuse for not learning.

Speaking as a math teacher, I agree that reform math is NUTS. I teach Algebra II, and my kids who really struggle with algebra concepts are even more hindered when they don’t know their basic math facts. They were never forced to memorize them in elementary school, and now they can’t solve a simple math problem without a calculator. My daughter (who graduated last year) is far from a whiz in math, but she was able to pass Algebra II because she knew her facts and could reason out the problems. The pendulum is swinging back the other way here in Texas – reform math is going the way of the dinosaur in many schools. Now I just have to wait until those kids reach high school….

I tutored a girl who was taking her second year of Regents-level math in NY. She was scoring in the 40s… and the reason why was that she could not do addition, subtraction, or any other operation in her head or on paper. She was a math cripple. I spent 5 months doing a crash course on those operations, giving her homework that could be mistaken for a third-grader’s from the 80’s. Add in another 3 months of actual algebra, and the girl was able to bring her grade up to passing.