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'New Math' Adds Up to O.C. Debate

August 27, 1996|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eileen Spatz of San Clemente remembers attending grade school in Fullerton, when math classes stressed rote memorization of multiplication tables and homework was plentiful. Counting on fingers was forbidden.

"I'm not going to say it was the good old days, because it wasn't fun. But we learned," said Spatz, now the mother of two school-age children who have been taught the so-called "new math."

Next month, when thousands of Orange County youngsters return to class, Spatz will be steering her children to a private school for the first time because she no longer has confidence in public schools.

Spatz said math lessons at her daughter's school included little homework and encouraged use of fingers, an abacus and even a calculator. Then she said she found out her son, soon to be a third-grader, often was given a choice between math and art projects.

"What are we paying taxes for?," Spatz said recently. "What kid is going to choose to do math instead of cut-and-paste? My daughter is subtracting on her fingers."

Back to Basics

Spatz isn't a lone critic. She's joined by outraged legislators and math and reading experts. And their back-to-basics refrain underscores one of the most controversial issues in education today: how best to provide children with the basic math and reading skills they will need to negotiate an increasingly complex world.

The state Department of Education is paying attention. Earlier this year, the department revamped its guidelines for teaching reading to emphasize phonics--a technique that teaches children to tackle new words by sounding out the letters.

Earlier this month, the department met to discuss math education, a subject that has been tinkered with for generations.

"Discussions about what's best have been going on forever," says Rosemary Herendeen, director of staff development and curriculum at La Habra City School District. "Teachers are always in the middle. And the pendulum swings too far one way before it comes back and swings the other way."

The debate is all the more difficult because both sides agree that the opposing view has something to offer.

Backers of "progressive" math support techniques such as group learning, where teachers step back and encourage schoolchildren to help each other grapple for the correct answer. Lecturing goes nowhere, they say.

Students also benefit from pondering math problems and providing oral or written explanations for their solutions, say supporters.

"Of course the correct answer is important," said Richard Doty, math chairman in the Santa Ana Unified School District, which is taking part in a new math experiment. "But if you have a problem with 20 steps, and the student goofed on the last part, wouldn't you be heartened if 19 out of 20 of those steps were done correctly? This all needs to stay in context."

But the critics seem to be winning the debate and are hoping the state will take a strong stance in opposition to group learning and other controversial techniques.

That may sound like exactly what Spatz and others are demanding. But changing teaching guidelines is a byzantine process that is likely to take at least two years before actual changes trickle down from the state to the county's Board of Education, to the local school district, to the individual school, to the teacher at the front of the class.

"By that time you've lost a generation that can't read, can't write and can't add," fumes Orange County Assemblyman Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton), a member of the Assembly Education Committee and a supporter of a back-to-basics approach. "The answer to two plus two is four, it's not five. And it doesn't matter what your peer group thinks."

Dismal test scores fuel the debate. In the last national math exam in 1992, only Louisiana and Mississippi ranked below California.

The Local Picture

Locally, the picture is not nearly as bad. Nor is it heartening, educators say.

Results released last year from the California Learning Assessment System tests show just over 50% of eighth-grade students in Orange County had at least "basic" reading and writing skills, while just 34% had basic understanding of math.

"I'm concerned that education is in a dumbing-down process; it's a joke now," said Robert Stewart, an English teacher with the Anaheim Union High School District who has taught for nearly 30 years. "They keep trying to reinvent the wheel when it was all right to begin with."

Professor Robert Marcucci, a math education professor at San Francisco State University, says he only needs to look into his classroom to see what a poor job public schools are doing. Theoretically, his college students--many of whom hope to teach--should be among the public school system's brightest.

"But I'm seeing students who are weaker than they've ever been in the past," Marcucci said. A large percentage of freshmen need remedial help in math or reading skills, he said. "There is a big problem. . . . It's pretty scary."

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