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Math        < Previous        Next >


What the Math Professors Say


Q. What do the college math professors think of the "new math" in our schools?


Mostly, they hate it. Among eminent math professors who have spoken out against "discovery learning" and the "progressive math" philosophy that favors group problem-solving activities over computation are Wilfried Schmid of Harvard University and Frank Allen, former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In June 2008, more than 50 math professors from colleges in Missouri signed a petition against "fuzzy math" style learning standards proposed by the Missouri Department of Education because, the professors contended, they would fail to develop students properly to handle college math work.


A key principle of "fuzzy math" is to allow students in early grade school to use calculators in daily math work as well as on standardized tests. Critics contend that they become dependent on the machines and are unable to grasp the concepts behind the computations themselves. Stephen Wilfour, a Johns Hopkins University math professor, surveyed college math professors on the question of whether students should be able to do math without a calculator to succeed in college . . . and 93 out of 93 agreed.


An outspoken advocate of traditional math is R. James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford University, a member of the NASA Advisory Council, and a member of the National Board of Education Science for the U.S. Department of Education. He says "new math" actually isn't that new - it dates back 50 years, to the era of 1950s reaction in the U.S. to advancements in space by the Russian Sputnik program.


Milgram said the new math curriculum was developed in an attempt to "catch up" but was ill-conceived and ill-prepared. He said it failed because it was intended for the top students but was taught to all students out of a misguided sense of "fairness" on the part of educators.


Milgram's chief complaints about "new math" include the fact that there is a focus on "problem solving" as a separate topic rather than having it woven in to the overall curriculum.


He also contends that many math experts believe we are introducing math concepts to children at far too young an age, when they are in their concrete thinking stages developmentally and not ready for such abstract concepts. The result: confusion.


He says that shows up in the increasing numbers of college freshmen who require remedial courses despite passing or even excelling in high school math, and also in complaints about math competency from the nation's employers, who are increasingly forced to look overseas for higher-level math and science workers.


Milgram and others in the math community feels strongly that children need to learn the foundational skills of math in order to handle algebra and college-level math, plus workplace applications. But, they say, those basics are almost never presented in an effective way in the early grades in American schools.


Math knowledge is both hierarchical - building a particular skill upon the basis of another particular skill, and cumulative - if you don't "get" skill A, you won't "get" skill B.


Milgram is among those calling for mathematics instruction to be devoted to developing deepening mastery of core topics through computation, problem-solving and logical reasoning, starting with elementary topics such as place value and whole numbers.



Homework: For a good view of the math world's view of what math class should be like, see the website of the Mathematical Association of America,


By Susan Darst Williams Math 02 2008


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