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Appointments Seen as Blow to Math Reforms

Education: Many new members of group that will rewrite state guidelines are critics of de-emphasis on basic skills.


A lengthy campaign by California teachers to improve math instruction by seeking to make it more interesting and meaningful to students was dealt a sharp blow this past week when the State Board of Education appointed many outspoken critics of the reforms to the committee that will rewrite official state math guidelines.

For the last 15 years, a growing group of math teachers had sought to update teaching methods that focused more on memorization than on understanding, more on number-crunching than on problem-solving. But the state board's appointments Friday reflect an extraordinarily quick rise to prominence of critics who over the past two years have complained that the reformers had all but ignored basic skills.

The critics had focused on changes adopted in the state's 1992 instructional guidelines, which had been praised nationally for their insistence that students be given opportunities to solve complex problems as well as calculate answers to routine ones. Those critics will now play a major role in writing a replacement. When finished, the new document will provide the blueprint for teacher training, textbook selection and test design.

The move drew immediate fire from state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who said it jeopardized the integrity of the process for writing the state's guidelines and could produce a document with too great an emphasis on low-level calculations.

Eastin was particularly angry at state board member Janet Nicholas, who engineered the rejection of most names recommended by a quasi-independent advisory group, the state Curriculum Commission.

"I have very serious concerns about what happened," said Eastin, who said she would submit a letter of protest. "It dishonors the process and says that the opinion of one board member is more important than the committee."

The Curriculum Commission reviewed about 100 applications and recommended 15 for the task of rewriting the math guidelines. But Nicholas removed 10 of those names and added 14 others, including at least seven people who have spoken out against the current guidelines. Five of those removed were made alternates to what is now a 19-member committee.

News of the board's unanimous decision to go along with Nicholas' recommendations stunned and angered many of the 5,000 math teachers gathered this weekend for their annual Southern California conference in Palm Springs.

"They've made it into an ideological issue," said Elaine Rosenfield, a San Luis Obispo teacher who chaired the effort that came up with the original names. "The board's message is [that] the only thing they value is basic skills."

The decision comes on top of the appointment of another activist critical of the reforms, political scientist Bill Evers, to head a committee developing a separate set of academic standards on which a new statewide test is to be based.

"It's devastating, it's shocking," said Margaret DeArmond, a Bakersfield teacher who heads the California Math Council, of the recent actions. "It's very insulting to be knocked out of the game."

But Nicholas said she expects the committee to recommend a balance among basic skills, conceptual understanding and problem solving. "There was no litmus test for this group of people . . . other than having expertise in the subject matter," she said.

Nicholas said she tried to appoint people who had not been previously active with math policy in order to reflect diverse views.

One of those appointed was Martha Schwartz of San Pedro, a former high school math teacher who now teaches math and science part time at Cal State Dominguez Hills. She has been among the critics of math reform in the Torrance Unified School District.

"I'd like to put the basics back in and build to a higher level," she said. "I have no problem with new and innovative ways to understand the math, but you have to practice it."

Among the reform critics appointed at Nicholas' suggestion are Zeev Wurman, a Palo Alto software firm manager; Ralph Cohen, a former chairman of the Stanford University math department; Paul Clopton, an Escondido statistician, and Henry Alder, an emeritus professor of math at UC Davis.

The state board this year called for a rewrite of the state's framework, several years before such a review would normally be scheduled, to correct a perceived failure to stress practice and math skills. The existing framework calls for less lecturing, more group work, fewer drills and more explorations of real-life situations.

Textbooks based on those guidelines entered classrooms only this year in most districts and have sparked the concern of some parents, who were more accustomed to seeing their children bring home drill sheets of computations, and of some teachers, the vast majority of whom have not been trained to teach in the less structured way called for in the guidelines.

Math teachers said the existing framework has not been given a chance to work and that problems with student achievement should be attributed to old methods rather than new ones that have yet to be tried in most of the state.

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