It has been over a year, but Andrew Unseth still remembers visiting his son's math class in Shakopee. The teacher rattled off a few instructions; then sixth-grader Joshua Unseth and his classmates split into groups of four and began to fret over a series of simple fractions. And everyone--including Joshua--appeared to be lost.
In one hour's time, Unseth recalls, many students failed to solve a single equation. "I was very surprised by the lack of teacher involvement in the process," he says. "Later on, however, I was shocked to discover that that was the process. The students were supposed to discover the answers by themselves."
The texts used in Shakopee--collectively titled The Connected Mathematics Project--are based on a national reform movement in math education that discourages paper-and-pencil computations in grades K through 12. Instead of rote memory work (repeating multiplication tables, toiling over worksheets), students are asked to analyze real-world problems: Calculate how the area of a pizza affects its price; determine how many cookies a baker must sell to turn a profit; and so on. According to the state Department of Children, Families and Learning, roughly 20 percent of Minnesota's school districts are using these modern methods, and that percentage is growing.
He didn't know it at the time, but when Unseth began questioning Joshua's teachers about this new methodology he was about to put himself smack in the middle of what has become known as "the math wars"--the hottest debate over math education since the fight over "new math" in the 1960s. Critics argue that programs like Shakopee's fail to teach basic skills. Proponents, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), cite research that suggests the traditional "drill and kill" approach is a failure. In the age of calculators, they argue, what counts is not multiplication tables, but an understanding of how to apply mathematical concepts to a high-tech world. Last spring, just months before Joshua was set to enter the seventh grade, Andrew Unseth did his own study. After ordering some material from a Baltimore-based home-schooling company, he sat Joshua down for a battery of tests and found that his son had the math skills of a fifth-grader. "That was my wake-up call," he says. Last September Unseth launched a bid for a seat on the school board; just days before the election, he was handing out campaign stickers to trick-or-treaters in the neighborhood. It worked. By rallying concerned parents, Unseth not only won a seat on the board, but also managed to launch an initiative guaranteeing that high school students in the district will be able to choose between reform math classes and a more traditional route starting next year.
In an office located in Peik Hall at the University of Minnesota, stacks of brand-new math texts are neatly arranged on bookshelves that circle the room. Around a table in the center of the office, three gray-haired men chat animatedly, often interrupting each other midsentence. They are Tom Post--a professor of math education at the university--and two former high school teachers, Ed Andersen and Arnie Cutler.
At one point Post jumps up and walks briskly across the office to grab a copy of Higher Algebra. "This is an algebra book that's 100 years old," he exclaims, drawing attention to the long lists of equations that fill the yellowing pages. "Look familiar? That's because it looks just like most algebra books that came out in 1998. It's the same old drill and practice.
"The problem with this approach," Post continues, "is that it caters to the top 20 percent of students. The other 80 percent simply don't get anything useful. Many stop taking math in the eighth grade because of it, and it's well known that if you don't have more than ninth-grade mathematics you'll end up flipping hamburgers." By contrast, he says, the newer books lining the walls are designed to involve all students.
"The new books aren't just about what answer is right and what answer is wrong," Andersen chimes in. "They ask the students what they think and get them to understand not only how to use formulas but why they're using the formulas."
Like other reform texts, the new math books are based on standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989. These standards call for a de-emphasis on "practicing tedious pencil-and-paper computations," emphasize that math should be "flexible," and urge teachers to assess whether answers are "reasonable" rather than simply right or wrong.
In 1992 public schools in California rewrote their math standards and purchased new textbooks to conform with the goals of the NCTM. Many professors of mathematics and parents objected. One vocal group even designed a Web site and created an organization called Mathematically Correct to fight the rise of reform math. By 1997 the traditionalists had gained the upper hand and gotten the state's board of education to recruit several academics from Stanford University to monitor a return to the basics.
"We made dramatic changes," says Jim Milgram, a Stanford professor of mathematics who helped write a more traditional curriculum for the California schools. Milgram, a vocal critic of reform math, has written several studies that he says link the reform programs to lower SAT scores. He also argues that over the past ten years the number of college freshmen in need of remedial math instruction at universities in California has more than doubled. "My studies clearly indicate that these programs are not well suited for college-bound students," he concludes.
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.
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."