Vermonters for Better Education
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(05/10/00) In an attempt to convince voters to pass a school budget, the Burlington school district circulated a publication entitled "Connections." Nicely done and well put together, it touted the successes and challenges of the school district and, of course, made the pitch for tax dollars Nothing wrong with that and no one should criticize their right to make their case directly to the voters.
But in their descriptions of wonderful things happening at the schools was an article about the adoption of a mathematics program called "MathLand." "MathLand is a new approach to math," wrote the anonymous author. "It updates traditional math education by helping to explain math in ways that make sense to students. Arithmetic is embedded in every part of the program. It uses computation and rote memorization each day…." I can only assume it was necessary to tout the program's reliance on things like computation and rote memorization as a sop to pesky parents who happen to want their kids to learn to add, subtract, divide, and multiply.
If the Burlington school districts do manage to incorporate a good share of these basics into the MathLand curriculum, then three cheers for them. But users of this program in other parts of the country have been disappointed with its results because of its over-reliance on concepts rather than basic skills. It is a program that flies in the face of a national movement to focus more on basic skills when teaching children mathematics.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, ABC News, the New York Times and the publication Education Week all featured stories about how the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is now recommending a return to fundamentals of computation rather than a focus on concepts and reasoning.. This comes after recommendations 11 years earlier that placed emphasis on new ideas and integrating electronic calculators into instruction.
"That became, in some places and for some teachers, the goal," said Glenda T. Lappan of the National Council. "They missed the main goal - that children become highly skill in using mathematics."
Which brings us back to MathLand. How does it measure up compared to these new recommendations? Not so well. One critic wrote the following about a presentation on MathLand made by curriculum director:
"(It) consisted of a description of a complicated and murky algorithm for calculating 13 x 18 = 234. By cutting and pasting various strips of paper in various places, she hoped to make clear why this algorithm (involving three divisions, three multiplications, a cancellation and then an addition of three numbers) worked. I eventually figured out what the point was."
And who wrote this description of a MathLand presentation? A trouble-making parent, perhaps? Or a reactionary education reformer? Why no. It was written by the chairman of the mathematics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
No wonder then that MathLand, along with other fuzzy math programs such as Connected Math (which is offered in other Vermont schools) is criticized by the well-regarded group of parents and mathematicians called Mathematically Correct.
No one should view criticism of these fuzzy math programs as criticism of creative approaches. As education historian Diane Ravitch said of the new focus on fundamentals advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, "The general public is perfectly willing to accept creative learning opportunities, but not at the expense of basic skills."
If you don't live in the Burlington school district, you might think your child is safe from these MathLand programs and their imitators. Not so, I'm afraid. One of the reasons MathLand was chosen in Burlington is because it is one of the national programs "fully aligned with Vermont's Framework of Standards and Learning," listed as such on the web page of the Vermont Institute for Science, Math, and Technology. The Institute, by the way, is a private endeavor funded in 1992 by a $9.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Its goal? "To dramatically transform science, math, and technology education for all Vermont's students." By promoting MathLand, we can be assured that dramatic changes are in store.