Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Better Late Than Never--Traditional Math Teachers Can Welcome NCTM To The Party

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published their so-called standards, which were the envy of every fuzzy-math-loving person on the planet. They were painful to read--not even clear, much less measurable. California's math standards, published about 8 years later, were the antithesis of NCTM's, with specific grade level standards and measurable tasks.

Apparently, the NCTM has seen the error of its ways--and it only cost a single generation of students who couldn't learn math. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the NCTM is taking its cue now from Singapore math, long a darling of traditional math teachers, and is revising its standards:

The nation's math teachers, on the front lines of a 17-year curriculum war, are getting some new marching orders: Make sure students learn the basics.

In a report to be released today, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which represents 100,000 educators from prekindergarten through college, will give ammunition to traditionalists who believe schools should focus heavily and early on teaching such fundamentals as multiplication tables and long division.

The council's advice is striking because in 1989 it touched off the so-called math wars by promoting open-ended problem solving over drilling. Back then, it recommended that students as young as those in kindergarten use calculators in class.

Those recommendations horrified many educators, especially college math professors alarmed by a rising tide of freshmen needing remediation. The council's 1989 report influenced textbooks and led to what are commonly called "reform math" programs, which are used in school systems across the country.

The new approach puzzled many parents. For example, to solve a basic division problem, 120 divided by 40, students might cross off groups of circles to "discover" that the answer was three.

Infuriated parents dubbed it "fuzzy math" and launched a countermovement. The council says its earlier views had been widely misunderstood and were never intended to excuse students from learning multiplication tables and other fundamentals.

Nevertheless, the council's new guidelines constitute "a remarkable reversal, and it's about time," says Ralph Raimi, a University of Rochester math professor.

Francis Fennell, the council's president, says the latest guidelines move closer to the curriculum of Asian countries such as Singapore, whose students tend to perform better on international tests. There, children focus intensely on a relative handful of topics, such as multiplication, division and algebra, then practice by solving increasingly difficult word and other problems. That contrasts sharply with the U.S. approach, which the report noted has long been described as "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Welcome to the party, NCTM. What kept you?


EllenK said...

My kids have complained about math, the math book and the touchy feely way it was being taught for years. Only when my son got into a Math Models class, which is stripped down basic math with no frills and no buzzers, did it ever make sense. He was always looking for the trick because that was the hook all of his teachers used to teach concepts. They taught multiplication as a three week unit never bothering to drill for the tables and bewildered that the kids couldn't multiply without calculators. I was a "new math" guinea pig and I can still multiply and divide faster on paper than most can on a calculator. But it didn't help me with higher level math at all because concepts require the structural underpinnings. And we never got that.

carol said...

Hallelujah! I can't believe the NTCM came around. Here I thought it was a communist plot! How long until this all trickles down to the boonies of Montana I wonder?