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.
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.
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
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.
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, www.maa.org