Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The beginning of the end for Fuzzy Math?

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has made an abrupt about face in its recommendations for how math should be taught.

The NCTM, since 1989, has been the nations most influential advocate of "New, New Math," or "Fuzzy Math." If you have kids who have gone through Oregon's public school system, you've seen it. I've written about it here and here.

The philosophy of New New Math is that kids shouldn't be directly taught and drilled in math facts, but rather should strive for higher conceptual understanding of math by figuring stuff out for themselves. This of course sounds stupid to anybody with half a brain, but apparently that excludes most math curriculum experts in the public school system.

This philosphy of math education, which Oregon has totally adopted, results in so-called math "standards," such as this one from Oregon's fifth grade standards:

"Develop and evaluate strategies for computing with decimals and fractions"

What kind of standard is this? Why would we want our fifth graders to be developing strategies for computing with decimals? Don't we already know what the best "strategies" are for adding and subtracting decimals?

I always thought it was the job of the teacher to know what the best strategies are, and to teach these strategies to the kids. But no, not in the world of "New, New math." These days the 10 year olds are perfectly capable of not only developing their own personal strategies for working with decimals, but they can evaluate them as well. This is the kind of nonsense that results from New New Math.

When the NCTM came out with their first "Math Standards" document in 1989, it was welcomed by the math teaching establishment and the education bureaucracy who were on the cusp of the Goals 2000 "standards" movement. It immediately touched off a backlash that became known as the "math wars."

Goals 2000 gave federal money to states to develop standards based on national criteria. The NCTM's standards became the de-facto national criteria, even though the NCTM itself admitted that they had never been tested empirically.

But the recommendations happened to completely jive with the progressive mindset of math educators nationwide (as opposed to college math professors, who roundly rejected the NCTM philosophy.) The math education priesthood proceeded to codify the NCTM philosophy in state math standards and create new curriculum programs based on it.

Most school districts in Oregon use one or another variant of it. Oregon's standards clearly reflect the philosophy.

Now, 15 years later, the NCTM is saying "We were wrong!"

After destroying a generation of math students, my daughter included, I am not too willing to just forgive them and say "welcome to the real world." I suppose it is a good thing that they have seen the error in their ways, but I wonder why they have any credibility in the first place.

Who from the NCTM is going to stand up and take the blame for leading the nation down a 15 year long bunny trail of math failure?

We all know the answer: being in the public education bureaucracy means never having to say you're accountable.

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