Efforts to reform math instruction just haven't been adding up for California students, who continue to rank behind counterparts in every state tested except Mississippi. That's a particularly appalling place to be for the state that not so long ago offered the premier example of public schooling.

The declining scores are again fueling a controversy in Sacramento. On one side stands State Board of Education member Janet Nicholas, who urges a greater emphasis on basic math instruction. She is now up for reconfirmation to a full term by the state Senate. On the other side is State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who urges a more balanced curriculum that reemphasizes fundamentals but retains reform math, an instructional method based on conceptual problem solving rather than rote memorization.

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported last week that 54% of California's fourth-graders had failed to master the basics (the national figure was 36%), politicians like Gov. Pete Wilson were quick to blame the reform math approach for failing to teach the basics.

But Eastin rightly points out that reform math is more than it might appear to a casual observer. In one reform math technique, children are divided into small groups where they are expected to learn complex math concepts through projects like assembling model houses or playing with paper. Such activity might seem aimless and unstructured, but the best teachers know when and how to intervene to ensure that children are not merely playing, but actually learning specific math concepts.

However, teachers can't teach what they don't know. Even Eastin admits that reform math only works when teachers "have a deep understanding of mathematics content, and possess the conceptual understanding and problem-solving abilities related to the topics that they teach." Such teachers are uncommon in California classrooms because most of the 1,000 math majors who graduate from California colleges each year bypass public education jobs for more lucrative careers in computer, software and other high-tech industries.

One promising solution is Assembly Bill 496, sponsored by Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos). His California Mathematics Teaching Challenge would set up a pilot study on awarding grants to help 3,500 teachers raise their math proficiency and improve their teaching skills. Costing only $1.5 million, this small step could muster big returns for California students.

Another critical solution is the revision, now underway, of the state mathematics "framework," which guides classroom instruction, textbook purchases and teacher training.

When the state Senate, controlled by Democrats, takes up the reconfirmation of Nicholas, an appointee of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, some Sacramento legislators will be inclined to view Eastin and Nicholas as warring factions. In fact, both share a common goal: raising math proficiency for all of California's students.

The current debate over how to teach math parallels the earlier one in the state over how to teach reading. Advocates of time-tested phonics, wherein students learn by sounding out words, debated proponents of the "whole language" approach, in which students learn intuitively by reading and hearing stories. That healthy discourse led to a more balanced approach to reading instruction.

Now it's time to do the same for math instruction.

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Adding It Up

Math scores of California fourth-grade students compared to national averages for year 1992 and 1996. Students scoring "below basic" in math:

1992

Nation: 41%

California: 54%

1996

Nation: 36%

California: 54%

Source: Los Angeles Times