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Looking At New Mathematics

THE public may be yearning for a return to the basics in some public schools, but trend-setting administrators can’t get enough of innovations that are self-esteem-intensive and academically forgiving. Today’s lesson concerns California’s latest math curriculum, the new new math, where memorization is out, and creativity and fun rule the day.

The philosophy behind new new math can be found in an early statement issued by the Instructional Resources Evaluation Panel (IREP), the panel responsible for choosing which math textbooks should be eligible for special state funding: ‘Early memorization of number facts is seen as a hindrance rather than a help in developing mathematical understanding.’ (Readers from other states be forewarned: the texts California buys soon sweep the nation.)

The curriculum that the IREP rated highest — a whopping 100 per cent — featured ‘Dear Family’ letters, one of which instructed the parents of third-graders, ‘Don’t worry if your child doesn’t use a ruler accurately yet — it’s a skill that will develop over time, with more and more opportunities to measure.’ Some curricula even teach ‘skip counting’ in place of the multiplication tables.

The IREP’s color-coded evaluations — orange=bad; blue=good — rated curricula thus:

— Orange/bad: Series features ‘repetitive exercises.’

— Blue/good: Units ‘begin with a multicultural folktale.’

— Orange/bad: ‘Students are directed to follow prescribed directions.’

— Blue/good: Lessons ‘use students’ personal, family, or cultural experiences.’

— Orange/bad: Assignments are ‘expected to produce predetermined numerical results.’

— Blue/good: Curriculum requires ‘student journal writing.’

— Orange/bad: Lessons are ‘generally under the direction of the teacher.’

Despite the clear anti-teacher bias, the California Teachers Association and United Teachers/Los Angeles have gone on record supporting the IREP-approved texts.

Even before the new curricula were approved by the state board, state educators had begun inculcating students in the ways of new new math. Last year’s controversial California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), for example, gave students credit for wrong answers. This fits with the mantra for the new new math: there is no right answer.

The teacher who headed the team that hatched one CLAS question, and devised the grading system that could award a higher score for a wrong than a right answer, later explained that the equation was ‘an intentionally ambiguous problem in which no one pattern can be considered the absolute answer.’

Here is the politically correct question, which was asked of eighth-graders:

‘A forest fire has destroyed 3,000 trees. To prevent erosion, new trees must be planted. Students from your school want to help replant the trees. Each student is given two trees to plant.

‘On the first day of replanting, one student plants both his trees in the forest. On the second day, two students plant their trees. On the third day, four students plant their trees, and so on.

‘How many days will it take to replant the the forest on this schedule?

‘Explain your plan to the principal so that you can convince her to help students involved in replanting the forest.’

The answer, as NATIONAL REVIEW readers can quickly verify, is 10 1/2 or 11 days, depending on whether you round off.

Yet, in accordance with grading guidelines put out by the Department of Education, a student who answered 450 days received a higher grade than a student who answered 10 1/2. You see, the student with the right answer either made some mistakes in his calculations or didn’t explain them well enough. He also didn’t write a good note to the principal.

The 450-day wonder, on the other hand, wrote an upbeat note. ‘It would be a great experience and we’d be helping save the forest. Remember only 450 days!’ she wrote, ending her note with a happy face.

The new new math’s emphasis on writing has given educators a tool in their efforts to hype their innovation. The kids love it, they say. And how do they know? In the Palo Alto Unified School District, teachers know the students love the new approach because they often issue the following assignments: to write essays about the math class that stands out to them, to write letters to their parents about what they’ve learned in math class, and to write letters to themselves concerning students’ math acumen.

Teachers at the Jane Lathrop Middle School compiled a handbook for parents in which they featured actual student assignments. No surprise, students gushed about their classes. There wasn’t a single dissenter in the handbook.

One student wrote to Mom and Dad, ‘I know all the important things that I need to know about being good at math.’ One student wrote to himself, ‘Now you are able to turn in an assignment that you feel confident about without having your parents even glance at it because you’ve learned that if you do make a mistake it’s okay because making mistakes means having to fix them which means you [sic] going to learn something.’ He signed off, ‘Good job.’ The math class ‘that stands out’ provided a virtual epiphany for another student.

The most frequent and important revelation in the essays is that students realized that other children had found their answers in different ways. Indeed, students wrote that this revelation was ‘exciting’ and ‘cool.’ Even students who felt they needed to know more were gosh-darn appreciative of a system that just left them yearning to explore further.

Of course, there is another reason why such essays have become the chosen testimonial for smitten educrats. They don’t have to have test scores to back them up. Then again, if kids love writing in math class so much, maybe they’d love to learn algebra in history class.

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