Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alternative to fuzzy math denied

An illuminating story appeared in the NYT on how the fuzzy math plague plays out in a Rochester, NY, suburb:

LAST spring, when he was only a sophomore, Jim Munch received a plaque honoring him as top scorer on the high school math team here. He went on to earn the highest mark possible, a 5, on an Advanced Placement exam in calculus. His ambition is to become a theoretical mathematician.

So Jim might have seemed the veritable symbol for the new math curriculum installed over the last seven years in this ambitious, educated suburb of Rochester. Since seventh grade, he had been taking the "constructivist" or "inquiry" program, so named because it emphasizes pupils' constructing their own knowledge through a process of reasoning.

Jim, however, placed the credit elsewhere. His parents, an engineer and an educator, covertly tutored him in traditional math. Several teachers, in the privacy of their own classrooms, contravened the official curriculum to teach the problem-solving formulas that constructivist math denigrates as mindless memorization.

"My whole experience in math the last few years has been a struggle against the program," Jim said recently. "Whatever I've achieved, I've achieved in spite of it. Kids do not do better learning math themselves. There's a reason we go to school, which is that there's someone smarter than us with something to teach us."

After citing example after example of math cripples, the article has this gem that shows the arrogance of educationists:

By last spring, these parents had discovered one another and their common exasperation with constructivist math. Jim Munch's father, Bill, a software developer at Kodak, drew up a petition asking the Penfield schools to offer pupils the option of taking traditional math. Nearly 700 residents signed it. Last June, the Board of Education turned down the request.
The superintendent haughtily dismisses parent concerns. Many of the parents have extensive math backgrounds:

Susan Gray, the superintendent, attributed the criticism of the math program to "helicopter parents" who are accustomed to being deeply involved in all aspects of their children's lives. "Because the pedagogy has changed, the parents who knew the old ways didn't know how to help their children," she said. "They didn't have the knowledge and skills to support their children at home. There's a security in memorization of math facts, and that security is gone now."

YET many of the dissident parents have extensive math backgrounds and thus the ability to criticize the curriculum. It is also true that most of them tolerated the constructivist program for its first several years, until bitter experience drove them into rebellion.

1 comment:

AP said...

I am a 6th grade math teacher in NYC, and let me tell you something: Memorization is a must. Students MUST memorize their multiplcation tables -- through 12 at least. I see too many students using their fingers to figure out 9 x 3; absent a true learning disability, this should not happen in the 6th grade.

Oh, but the security of memorization is gone now. How nice. The condescension of Superintendent Gray's comments is astounding.