Real Math: Sexist, Racist, or Just Hard?

Published March 1, 2000

A group of 200 prominent mathematicians and scientists has called on U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to rescind his department’s ringing endorsement of 10 elementary and secondary mathematics programs, arguing that the programs are damaging to children because they omit instruction in basic mathematics skills.

While agreeing that children need to master basic skills, Riley defended the endorsed programs by claiming each had improved student learning.

Last fall the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) endorsed a Top 10 list of elementary and secondary mathematics programs favored by its own Mathematics and Science Expert Panel. Five programs received “exemplary” status, and five others were named “promising.”

In write-ups of the programs on the government Web site, the panelists said this about the “promising” Everyday Mathematics for K-6:

“This enriched curriculum includes such features as problem-solving about everyday situations; linking past experiences to new concepts; sharing ideas through discussion; developing concept readiness through hands-on activities and explorations; cooperative learning through partner and small-group activities; and enhancing home-school partnerships.”

To which San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders responded: “Sounds more like marriage counseling than math class.”

Indeed, virtually all of the DoEd-blessed curricula extol the merits of “real world” or “real life” applications of math, with lots of group work, partner quizzes, student role-playing, journals with children’s entries on how they feel about math, copious use of calculators, and group estimating. That’s according to the official descriptions.

In general, the federal government’s Top 10 are from what is called the ‘Whole Math’ genre–a kissing cousin of Whole Language–where basic skills and teacher-directed instruction are played down in favor of pupil-led discovery, or constructivism.

MathLand, another program designated as “promising” by the DoEd panel, has an exercise called Fantasy Lunch. Second-graders are invited to conjure up their fantasy lunch, then draw it, and finally cut up the imaginary food and put it into a bag. Connected Math, rated “exemplary,” emphasizes higher-level thinking skills, but California rejected the program for middle-school students because it omits the division of fractions and other basic computational skills.

The constructivist approach to mathematics has its fans, notably the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). This is the group that spurred the Whole Math movement with its 1989 standards, to which DoEd’s Top 10 adhere. When The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized against Whole Math, several supporters of Everyday Math fired back on January 13 with letters, contending the program has helped students grasp mathematical concepts, which in turn has brought about increases in achievement.

But DoEd’s unqualified embrace of the constructivist approach–sometimes called the “New-New Math”–prompted a counterattack by the heaviest artillery yet in the Math Wars. On November 18, 1999, Secretary Richard Riley and staff spilled their morning coffee over a full-page Washington Post advertisement signed by 200 mathematicians, scientists, and other experts calling on Riley to withdraw the federal endorsement of the 10 math programs. Among the signers were four Nobel laureates in physics and two winners of the Fields Medal, the highest honor for mathematicians.

The high-powered group protested the absence of active research mathematicians from DoEd’s Expert Panel. They also objected that DoEd’s Top-10 programs omitted basic skills, such as multiplying multi-digit numbers and dividing fractions.

“These programs [the Top 10] are among the worst in existence,” said Cal State/Northridge math professor David Klein, who helped draft the letter. “It would be a joke except for the damaging effect it has on children.”

Some of the panelists fought back. For example, Steven Leinwand accused the 200 scholars of being interested in “math for the elite” alone. Leinwand, math consultant for Connecticut’s education department, said the NCTM and DoEd believe “math needs to empower all students.” However, it was Leinwand who in 1994 wrote in Education Week that continuing to teach children multi-digit computational algorithms was “downright dangerous.”

Although a statutory prohibition prevents DoEd from dictating curricula, Congress provided a way around that restriction in 1994 when it passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Title IX called on DoEd’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement to set up Expert Panels to endorse top programs in gender equity, safe and drug-free schools, technology, and math and science. Title IX, like Goals 2000 itself, stressed the idea of equalizing academic outcomes for all sub-groups in the student population.

Secretary Riley commented that NCTM has published “the prevailing standards in the country, so we thought that would make sense.” But critics see a deliberate integration of ideological agendas. The architects of NCTM’s 1989 standards declared that social injustices had given white males an advantage over women and minorities in math, and they promised NCTM’s reinvented math would equalize scores. Equality would be achieved by eliminating the “computational gate.”

Klein argues this Whole Math approach “hurts the students with the least resources the most” by depriving them of the computational basics they need as a foundation for higher math. “If kids get a good, solid program in arithmetic, they have a good chance of learning algebra,” he explained, “and algebra’s one of the main gates into colleges.” The Whole Math programs are based on the assumption that “minorities and women are too dumb to learn real mathematics,” he said.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va. His e-mail address is [email protected].