President Clinton's Mandate for Fuzzy Math

Marianne Jennings, an Arizona State business professor, has brought enlightenment to multitudes. With her commentaries on her daughter Sarah's eighth-grade math book ("MTV Math," she calls it, for its colorful pictures, disconnected ideas and generally casual attitude), she has helped parents across the country realize they are not the only ones dismayed by current mathematics education. Kids are writing about "What We Can Do to Save the Earth," and inventing their own strategies for multiplying. They're learning that getting the right answer to a math problem can be much less important than having a good rationale for a wrong one.

Sometimes called "whole math" or "fuzzy math," this latest project of the nation's colleges of education has some formidable opponents. In California, where the school system embraced whole math in 1992, parents and dissident teachers have set up a World Wide Web site called Mathematically Correct to point out the follies of whole-math instruction. The credentials of the organizers are impressive -- a molecular biologist, a geophysicist, a statistician. And their left-of-center politics give them an advantage in battling an education establishment that typically dismisses all critics as far-right reactionaries. "Usually, the first words out of my mouth are `I'm a liberal Democrat,'" says Mike McKeown, a faculty member at the Salk Institute and a member of Mathematically Correct. As a result of their efforts, several members have been appointed to panels that will influence future math curricula in California.

But such victories will be moot if President Clinton gets his way. The president wants a national test for eighth-grade mathematics. Judging from the committee the administration recently picked to oversee the exam, fuzzy thinkers will soon rule the land. The chairman is John A. Dossey, one of the brains behind ("conceptualizers" of) the Addison-Wesley textbook Sarah Jennings uses. Mr. Dossey and the committee's vice chairman, Gail Burrill, are both past presidents of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the group largely responsible for bringing whole math to the schools.

In 1989, Mr. Dossey served on an NCTM commission that issued standards for mathematics that denounced the schools' "longstanding preoccupation with computation and other traditional skills." It was no longer crucial, the commission suggested, for students to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Giving such "computational algorithms" over to calculators, the standards declare, would free students to develop a conceptual understanding of mathematics and to become "active participants in creating knowledge."

The NCTM commission envisioned classrooms in which teachers operate on the sidelines. Instead of instructing, they encourage "cooperative learning." Such classrooms have become a reality in many U.S. schools. MathLand, a curriculum widely used in California, advises teachers not to "indicate in any way the rightness or wrongness of different answers," but to let students "convince" one another and reach a conclusion on their own.

Whole-math advocates say their methods will bring American math achievement up to world-class levels. But in fact kids in Japan, usually among the top performers on international assessments, do plenty of memorization and drill. Only after they have mastered basic skills are they allowed to use calculators. Moreover, during problem-solving discussions in Japanese classrooms, the teacher leads, making sure that students arrive at the solutions in the optimal way.

Whole-math advocates also argue their methods will eliminate the advantage that white males have in mathematics. In the NCTM's view, "the social injustices of past schooling practices" are responsible for minorities and women being underrepresented in advanced math study, and the reinvented math curriculum will help them succeed.

The NCTM claims that removing the "computational gate" to high school math will provide "equal access and opportunity." In other words, minorities and women would benefit if no one were required to master basic skills before moving on to high school. Other whole-math proselytizers speak of minorities' and women's special need for cooperative rather than competitive learning (thus the emphasis on working in groups) and for connecting what they study to social concerns (thus the emphasis on saving the planet).

These "theories" are nothing more than stereotypes, backed -- like much of whole math -- by research so anecdotal it barely deserves the name. But that has not kept whole-math ideas from being influential, and they will become more powerful still if they are embedded in a national test. Odds are, this will happen. Like Mr. Dossey and Ms. Burrill, the overwhelming majority of the math committee members are whole-math advocates.

What would a national exam based on whole math look like? Here's a hint: A few years ago Mr. Dossey proposed a change to the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, the exam the math committee is using as its starting point. He wanted a scoring system under which students would get only half credit for right answers if they didn't make clear how they arrived at them. Wrong answers would get full credit if accompanied by "appropriate strategies."

Those who are worried about a future in which everyone from doctors to actuaries to aircraft designers holds mathematical accuracy in low regard will be able to express their concerns at two public hearings the math committee is holding: one June 17 in Denver and another Aug. 5 in San Francisco. Governors are also targets for protest. They can decide whether their states will adopt the national math exam, and they should hear from citizens who do not want to participate in the further ruination of America's schools.

Mrs. Cheney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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