Simple Division

From metro-area classrooms to the state Legislature, "new new math" equals controversy

But the gray-haired men in Peik Hall have their own studies, and they say their data show that the reform programs are working. "The traditional approach simply doesn't work," Post says tersely. "It's not like we haven't tried it--we've been doing it for 30 years. What interests me is that these people that are so very critical have not spent a minute in public schools."

Recently the academic debate has spilled beyond academia. Last October the U.S. Department of Education released a report strongly recommending reform texts over traditional ones. In response Milgram and more than 200 mathematicians and scientists, including four Nobel laureates, took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post asking the federal agency to withdraw their endorsement.

The ad led the U.S. House of Representatives' Education and Workforce Committee to hold a hearing in February. Milgram testified against the new math programs along with a Michigan father of three named Mark Schwartz. "If medical doctors experimented with our kids in the same fashion school districts do, they would be in jail," Schwartz told the committee.

No more "kill and drill": Math educators Arnie Cutler, Tom Post, and Ed Andersen spread the reform gospel
Tony Nelson
No more "kill and drill": Math educators Arnie Cutler, Tom Post, and Ed Andersen spread the reform gospel

The debate over reform math is also causing a stir at the Minnesota Legislature. A bill authored by Rep. Tony Kielkucki (R-Lester Prairie) is awaiting a hearing in a House-Senate conference committee. It calls for changes to the state's controversial set of curriculum rules known as the Profile of Learning. If it passes, students in both traditional and reform math classes could expect to fulfill the profile's requirements. As it stands now, students enrolled in traditional math programs must complete extra work to satisfy the reform-oriented requirements of the profile. "I have honors students in [traditional] math calling me complaining that they're not getting their credits [for the Profile]," Kielkucki observes. "The state needs to step out and let parents and teachers decide what math should be studied."

Sharon Stenglein, the mathematics specialist at the Department of Children, Families and Learning, doubts Kielkucki's bill will get very far. "[The new books] are in line with our standards testing," she says. "And Governor Ventura has clearly said he will veto any bill that doesn't keep the profile with the standards we now have."

Regardless of what the Legislature may do, many parents are making sure that reform math programs don't take over their schools. Like Shakopee, Mounds View adopted a reform curriculum wholesale in 1998. Six months later the district brought back traditional programs (as an option alongside the reform courses) to quell protests from parents. For the most part, public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul are also offering both kinds of programs to fend off controversy. "A lot of parents insist on a traditional math program," says Paul Dillenberger, a mathematics specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools, "especially at the high school level where they think it really starts to count."

Parents like Andrew Unseth, meanwhile, hope to follow California's lead and eventually force educators to abandon "new new math." "There are just too many reports of good math students who have had to start college doing remedial work rather than college-level math courses," says Unseth. "I expect more sweeping returns to traditional-looking approaches in the future."

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