Sunday, February 20, 2005

More on massive government funding of fuzzy math

Not even the President of the country can defeat the zealous forces of fuzzy math.

This editorial appeared almost a year ago in The Education Gadfly and was written by David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University. Apparently, nothing has changed.


Will Congress hurt or help K-12 math education?

Much like the "reading wars" between phonics instruction and whole language learning, the K-12 "math wars" have raged for more than a decade. With many defeats and only occasional victories, parents, education reformers, and a number of university mathematicians have struggled against "fuzzy math" in schools. Now President Bush is proposing a bold plan to improve mathematics education, but some members of the House—even some members of his own party—are resisting.

The Problem

"Fuzzy math," a philosophical sibling of whole language learning, refers to textbooks and school programs that intentionally de-emphasize basic arithmetic and algebra skills. At the elementary school level, these programs encourage students to invent their own arithmetic procedures, while discouraging the use of the traditional and far superior methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Calculator use is encouraged to excess—in some cases, they're even included in kindergarten lesson plans, at precisely the age that students should be learning basic computational skills unaided. Student "discovery group work" is the preferred mode of learning, sometimes the only mode, and the discovery projects are almost invariably incoherent and aimless. Some of the elementary school fuzzy math programs do not even provide textbooks for students, as books might interfere with student discovery projects. Arithmetic and algebra are radically de-emphasized by these programs. In the higher grades, mathematical definitions and proofs are generally deficient, missing entirely, or even incorrect.

The principal funding source of fuzzy math for the past decade has been the federal government by way of the Education and Human Resources (EHR) division of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The EHR is the directorate within the NSF that funds K-12 education projects. No single institution in the United States has caused more damage to the mathematical education of children than this low-profile bureaucratic unit of the National Science Foundation. The damage that the EHR has caused, and continues to cause, contrasts sharply with the NSF's overall admirable and important role in supporting fundamental scientific research.

For example, in October 1999, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 10 so-called "exemplary" and "promising" math programs that it recommended for the nation's 15,000 school districts. More than half of these "exemplary" and "promising" math programs were created with EHR funding, and the rest were and are aggressively promoted by the EHR. On the list were some of the worst math education programs in the country. For example, one of the "promising" curriculum called Everyday Mathematics calls calculators are "an integral part of Kindergarten Everyday Mathematics" and urges the use of technological aids to teach kindergarten students how to count. There are no textbooks in this K-6 curriculum—a serious shortcoming. The program assigns the standard algorithm for multiplying two numbers no more status or prominence than an Ancient Egyptian algorithm presented in one of the teacher's manuals. Students are never required to use the standard long division algorithm in this curriculum, or even the standard algorithm for multiplication.

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