May 11, 1998
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
The NewsHour has the report on the battle over the best way to teach mathematics.
KAREN EASON, Teacher: Willie the Wizard has a special hobby, and it's growing huge vegetables.
LEE HOCHBERG: It's the start of a story problem not unlike the ones from fifth grade math a generation ago. But listen further.
KAREN EASON: You're going to pick a strategy, so you can find out what the answer is. Should you just decide on one strategy by itself?
LEE HOCHBERG: It's math where there is no one way to solve a problem, where phrases like "essentially correct," seemingly out of place in the finite world of math, appear on the board. It's the latest version of new math, and 10 million American kids in 40 states like these at Fairplay Elementary in Corvallis, Oregon, are immersed in it.
LEE HOCHBERG: In this new math students often work in groups to figure out problem-solving strategies. They write up posters that describe varying strategies, and present them to the class. They use calculators and do experiments. The process of figuring out problems is more important than the answer.
LEE HOCHBERG: You didn't ask anybody the answer.
KAREN EASON: No.
LEE HOCHBERG: Teacher Karen Eason.
KAREN EASON: Answer is a product of what you have done before, but it's not the crucial thing. The crucial parts of it is--is the decision on what is it asking you, what are the best strategies to use, and then to be able to--to talk about why.
STUDENT: This appears to be a measurement problem, and it's using Algebra. The formula we used was T + 3 = N.
LEE HOCHBERG: The teaching style was developed in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or NCTM. Although there never was any scientific research conducted on the effectiveness of this style of teaching, the NCTM hoped it would better prepare American students for the modern adult workplace. Jim Specht heads the NCTM's Oregon chapter.
JIM SPECHT, National Council for Teachers of Math: There are no ads in the paper for people who are highly proficient at long division with big remainders. Employers want employees who can communicate effectively on how they solved the problem.
LEE HOCHBERG: But in Oregon and elsewhere the new math has been tagged with such pejoratives as "fuzzy math" and "rain forest math" by parents who say it's weak on the basics.
PARENT: I see many, many children, you could throw that thinking at them, and they'd be extremely confused.
LEE HOCHBERG: Math wars have ignited, as at this recent meeting to promote new math in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.
SPOKESPERSON: Transforming mathematics problems is urgently needed. If we haven't learned to value that there are many, many, many different ways that problems can be solved, then it is the very notion of democracy that's at risk.
PARENT: What CPA is going to use that to compute my taxes? Is my banker going to be using that particular type of mathematics? You know, you have to think about math in the real world.
SPOKESPERSON: I think a lot about it. In fact, one--
LEE HOCHBERG: And in cities like Corvallis, Oregon, where this new math is already in place, parents like Dave Williams said the experimentation adds up to confusion.
DAVE WILLIAMS, Parent: Well, in the meantime, my children have lost. They only get one chance at a useful education. And all that experimentation ruins it for many children.
LEE HOCHBERG: Williams, an engineer by training, who works at Hewlett Packard, put five children through Corvallis schools. But he complained to school administrators when his son struggled with the verbal requirements of new math.
DAVE WILLIAMS: I felt like there was more concern over how the answer was going to be punctuated, rather than whether or not the answer was correct. The write-up seemed to be more important than the math.
LEE HOCHBERG: Three years ago the school district allowed Williams and other concerned parents to create a new back-to-basics school nearby.
TEACHER: Multiples of three. Okay, ready, let's go. Three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one.
LEE HOCHBERG: At Franklin Elementary the emphasis was put back on computation skills and speed and accuracy.
TEACHER: Okay. You say it. I'll write it. Six times one.
TEACHER: Six times two.
DAVE WILLIAMS: There really is very little way to learn that, other than to memorize. You know, seven times five is thirty-five. And you just memorize it, and you do it over and over and over again until, you know, forty years later, or whatever the number of years later, you can still do that.
LEE HOCHBERG: But there was a problem. When it came time to do state testing, the back-to-basics students at Franklin School did poorly, scoring lower than the new math pupils at Fairplay Elementary. In fact, no Franklin student met the Oregon state standard on last year's math achievement test. That test is weighted towards being able to answer questions in writing. Franklin principal Jim Schweigert says his students had only had a year of studying that new method.
JIM SCHWEIGERT, Principal: If you look at the multiple choice portion of the math assessment from last year, students did very well on that. Right now the critical thing is that teachers are learning how to provide instruction for that, which is a very new assessment.
LEE HOCHBERG: Test scores have been used by both critics and opponents of new math. Critics point out that in the recently released third international mathematics and science study of 21 nations American 12th graders beat out only Cypress and South Africa. But new math advocates answer that U.S. fourth graders--many of whom have been doing new math since kindergarten--scored above average in the same test. In California, where new math was implemented in 1992, students have performed poorly on national achievement tests. Some blamed reduced school funding and increased foreign immigration. But others blamed the curriculum. State officials agreed with that analysis and last December reverted back to a traditional curriculum.
TEACHER: And we're going to go to 6, F1, enter, enter.
LEE HOCHBERG: Math teachers, like the NCTM's Jim Specht, say a return to the traditional teaching methods they derisively call grill and kill is not the solution. They say such teaching might work on those who learn step by step but ignores other types of learners, often girls and minorities.
JIM SPECHT: Some students learn the best when they can interact with others, teacher to student, student to student, like that. Some are audio learners; some are visual learners. They need a model where they can move things around. You can't just ignore those people. They have to be served. And curriculums and programs that engage the largest number of students are the programs we should be using.
LEE HOCHBERG: But critics say those are the very students new math won't reach, the estimated 20 to 40 percent of students classified at risk. University of Oregon math educator Doug Carnine is co-author of a traditional math text. He says children of poverty need a structured approach and can't follow process and language heavy new math.
DOUG CARNINE, Math Educator, University of Oregon: The real danger is using that kind of approach with at-risk kids, who are likely to fail in school. They don't have the support at home and the help at home to learn those essential foundation skills. If they don't get it, they're going to fail.
LEE HOCHBERG: And critics say in the effort to reach more kids, math textbooks have become a smorgasbord of colored graphics and multiculturalism, equations and math learning taking a back seat.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD, (D) West Virginia: I have to go a step further and call it wack Algebra.
LEE HOCHBERG: One text drew scorn from Sen. Robert Byrd on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Page 5 of this same wondrous tome begins with a heading written in Spanish, English, and Portugese, a map of South America, and an indication of which language is spoken where. Pythagorus would have been scratching his head by this time. And I confess so was I.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Beaverton, Oregon, School District has just approved a different new math curriculum called "Mathland," which its publisher estimates half of California elementary school kids have used. Mathland has several colorful teacher aids but no student text to take home. Mathland's Richard Lefingwell says that's good for students.
RICHARD LEFINGWELL, Mathland: What it gets the students to do is it gets them to focus on what is really the activity and problem at hand, instead of trying to say let me look in the text and see where the clue is, let me look in the text and see where the text is telling me to go. The fact that we do not have a text makes the students focus on what's the activity.
LEE HOCHBERG: But without a text, students rely heavily on teachers to help learn the new math methods. Beaverton school board member John Wilkens voted against a plan to institute Mathland without intensive teacher training.
JOHN WILKENS, Beaverton School Board: That's training that's different from the traditional math of two times two is four or the basic computational skills. That requires talent that a lot of teachers now don't have the skills to do.
LEE HOCHBERG: School administrators later agreed to spend an extra million dollars for accelerated teacher training. And they also agreed to offer students a choice between traditional and new math programs. Wilkens says for schools that can afford it that may be the smartest way to move forward with new math.
JOHN WILKENS: In the absence of that option I would be very concerned about implementing the program because I think that the track record is not out there long enough. The kids would still learn math, but would they learn math as well? I don't think so. We need to have students that think. We need to have students that understand conceptually, and the majority of our students aren't doing that well. And that's what we're responding to.
STUDENT: For 1 percent you must move the decimal over two times.
LEE HOCHBERG: With the old math and new math camps growing more polarized, there appears to be no quick solution to the country's math problem.