The Reform movement remains on top: Education journals highlight ways to teach "African American math." Conferences attracting 5,000 teachers suggest downplaying the difficulty of classwork by basing problems on fairy tales.
One missionary in the Reform cause is consultant Ruth Parker, who rejects long division and multiplication tables as nonsensical leftovers from a pre-calculator age. She urges audiences to "let kids play with numbers," and they will figure out most any math concept.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 15, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Math teaching--A Jan. 5 article in The Times on math instruction stated incorrectly that a Reform curriculum called the Interactive Mathematics Program is widely used in Japan. It is not.
Parker has spoken before 20,000 people over the last six months at the behest of school districts. But there's an ominous reason for that: The districts are worried.
Reform now is facing the same sort of scrutiny--and ridicule--that killed New Math.
Why? The feel-good language presents an easy target. And the test score gap with other industrial nations is not closing.
This fall, the National Assessment of Educational Progress said 17-year-olds are no stronger in math than 20 years ago. Only six of 10 high school seniors can compute with decimals, fractions and percentages. Fewer than one in 10 can use beginning algebra.
Math professors shake their heads at the skills of freshmen--54% in the CSU system have to take remedial math. "Things the average students would know backward and forward 12 years ago, these students don't know at all," said Jerry Rosen of Cal State Northridge, lamenting how students now use calculators to add single-digit numbers.
Performance in elementary grades is shaky as well. Last year, after many California schools began using Reform lesson plans, test scores immediately plunged in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and elsewhere--stirring parent revolts.
"I don't think parents would be skeptical if they thought the new ideas were firmly anchored in their kids being able to balance a checkbook when they're older," said Miller, the San Francisco writer. He put his daughter in a Catholic school where she is expected to memorize multiplication tables by the end of the third grade.
Just as California led the way to Reform, so is it experiencing backlash first. Critics compare the state's math curriculum to its disastrous experiment in reading instruction. Officials embraced the "whole language" approach, downplaying fundamental phonics skills in favor of trusting that students would learn them through exposure to interesting stories.
In math, those leading the backlash say it's a difficult subject, whether reformers admit it or not. And it is practice adding and subtracting--with a pencil--that prepares the mind for complex work such as calculus.
The fight gets ugly at times.
At San Fernando High, Dan Hart is following the example of Jaime Escalante. He touts "real academic standards" and uses the same texts and cram sessions to teach low-income Latino students Advanced Placement calculus.
Of 19 who took the AP test last spring, eight passed. Francisco Garcia also scored a perfect 800 on the college entrance SAT test.
But Hart is an outlaw in the Los Angeles district because he uses structured Saxon Publishing books, which reformers have stricken from approved lists. His students have them only because the publisher donated them.
"It's astounding to me that these books are so vilified, because kids learn so much better," Hart said.
Hart is optimistic, though, because the state now is rewriting its guidelines for the teaching of math and reading. In fact, the appointment of outspoken backlashers to the math panel enraged reformers, with 3,000 teachers signing protest petitions.
So what to do? Were we to repeat the patterns of the past, policymakers would order a retreat to traditional practices and declare the war won . . . until the next counterrevolution.
But no one--neither reformers nor their critics--believes that would improve our international standing.
Voices as prominent as Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, say we need to decide exactly what math students should know at each level. And we should not flee from testing performance because failure may hurt some.
That still leaves room for different approaches.
The nations high on the international report card do not use one method. Japanese teachers use many Reform-type lessons, but students also attend private programs for extra drilling.
What's more, Japanese lessons are better crafted and more likely to include challenging math ideas. That was the conclusion of Stigler, the UCLA professor, who supervised videotaping of eighth-grade classes in various nations.
American lessons, in contrast, were unfocused and often interrupted. Stigler said 95% of the teachers espoused Reform ideas, but the vast majority offered lessons not unlike those of the 1950s.
That finding was one reason that Education Secretary Riley urged Americans not to give up on Reform philosophy. Parents, he said, should demand classes that help kids really "understand."