A Whole Math Recovery Program
BY MARTHA SCHWARTZA
Here in California, student math performance is rebounding after a ten year addiction to one of education's most seductive drugs: "Whole Math."
There are still pockets of Whole Math around the state, mainly in the impoverished inner city. But California is on the road to recovery. How? Like any addict: we followed a twelve-step recovery plan. I'll outline the steps in a moment.
Oregon is about five years behind California's penchant for trends and fads in math curricula so you may only now be experiencing the effects of Whole Math
How can you tell if your school is caught in the grips of Whole Math addiction? First, look at their reading programs. Whole Math is the sister substance to Whole Language, a faddish pedagogy that expects children to teach themselves to read and spell. Another sibling is Whole Science, an unbalanced scheme, which presumes children can discover even counterintuitive concepts on their own by experimentation with toys.
Whole Math provides children with calculators, contrived "real life" problems, exploratory activities in groups, topics taken in scrambled-egg order, myriad opportunities to write their feelings about math and to color, cut and paste, and plenty of reassurance that correct answers don't matter much. Lost in the fog is any notion that basic math facts (like the times tables) have to be memorized or that standard algorithms (such as long division) need to be practiced and mastered. From this hodge-podge, students are expected to develop deep "conceptual understanding" of mathematical ideas-concepts in the absence of procedural fluency.
It sounds good rhetorically, feels good, and claims to be tonic for the poor and downtrodden, so it's easy to get hooked. But it harms children, and is indeed worse than the imperfect system it was meant to replace
California, ever eager to embrace the latest fad, adopted a fuzzy NCTM -style mathematics Framework in 1992, and curricula based on it appeared all over the state soon after. By 1996, National Assessment of Educational Progress confirmed our worst fears, ranking formerly proud California close to last in the nation in children's mathematical achievement
As a co-founder of an organization called "Mathematically Correct," I was in the vanguard of the backlash against Whole Math. We organized ourselves
loosely over the Internet and set out to make friends for honest math and to insert ourselves anywhere we could attempt to influence policy. The "twelve-step" plan for math recovery has dominated our lives for several years.
Here's California's twelve step "Whole Math recovery program":
1. Realize that educrats are powerless over the allure of unproven fads such as Whole Math.
2 Believe that only a power greater than educrats-parents-can restore sanity to the math curriculum.
3. Organize parents through the Internet and arm them with solid research and information.
4. Make friends across political boundaries, and find legislators willing to take up the issue.
5. Lobby for new and rigorous state math curriculum standards.
6. Volunteer for committees; be willing to face public insult for it.
7. Do as much of the work as you can yourselves, even if it means staying up a whole night to do right what it takes a bureaucracy six months to do wrong.
8. Realize that your effectiveness is measured by the volume of the educrats' protests.
9. Don't redesign the wheel. There are many sets of good math standards, nothing like the "national" ones!
10. Insist on a standardized test that provides valid data. Reject the educrats' penchant for "authentic" assessments such the "3 Ps" - projects, posters and portfolios-which replaced the "3 R's.
11. Cultivate the local and state press-write plenty of letters to the editor. Don't hesitate to lampoon the foibles of Whole Math lunacy.
12. Run and support friendly candidates for school boards, legislature, state hoards and state superintendent.
A thirteenth step some of us took: pray. The fixture of the country is riding on improving the intellectual health of our children.
In the darkest days, remember: Oregon is not alone. Others have recovered. Help is no further away than www.mathematicallycorrect.corn.
-Martha Schwartz is co-founder of " Mathematically Correct ", a group of parents and mathematics professors who successfully rid the state of California of its "fuzzy math" standards.
BrainstormNW December 2001
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